Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Endless Honeymoon, by Don Webb

Birthday Review: Endless Honeymoon, by Don Webb

a review by Rich Horton

Don Webb has a birthday today. He's written a lot of neat short fantasy and horror over the years. His only novels (that I know of) are a set of Texas-based mysteries, with slight and ambiguous fantastical elements, that were published around the turn of the millennium by St. Martin's Press. I really liked those books, but alas, there have been no more. Here's what I wrote about the third of those books when it first came out:

Endless Honeymoon is the third in a recent series of Texas-based mysteries by the engagingly odd writer Don Webb.  I say series, but the books are very loosely linked, sharing mostly some Texas settings, and occasionally featuring major characters from another book as minor characters. I like all three books a lot.  This latest book, after The Double and Essential Saltes, is even more loosely linked, as the protagonists of the other two books were brothers. The lead male characters are all likeable, somewhat nerdy, and very uxorious.  The subject matter is always a bit off-center, and quite different from book to book, but computers are always central to the books.  And you can count on a mention of fireworks.  (It's not certain that this book is in exactly the same timeline as the other two: a murdered character from a previous book appears here alive, and it seems to be set later, though who knows for sure.)

This book is about a couple named Willis and Virginia Spencer. They are independently wealthy (Virginia inherited money, and Willis made a bundle as a Y2K expert), and they spend much of their time performing rather cruel pranks.  Their victims are people whom they have discovered who are "psychic vampires", or simply "shits", who delight in causing misery to those around them, and Willis and Virginia hope to teach these folks a lesson.  They choose their victims by means of a computer program Willis found during his Y2K work.  It turns out, however, that the program was written by a man who takes the whole thing a bit more seriously: he murders the "psychic vampires" instead of simply scaring them.  And one day, unluckily, Willis and Virginia choose the same victim that the "Shit Killer", as he is called, has chosen.

Before long, several people are on the track of the couple. One is the agent the FBI has assigned to the "Shit Killer" case, a young Hispanic man named William Mondragon. This case has the reputation of driving FBI agents crazy, and indeed the previous agent on the case, Abel Salazar, has quit the FBI and is working for someone else, also looking for the killer, and he tracks down both Mondragon and the Spencers.  Add the "Shit Killer" himself, who may be looking for a successor to carry on his work, and the mysterious person behind Salazar, and the Spencers are in big trouble.  Before long Virginia has been kidnapped and Willis and Mondragon are on a wild chase after both her and the real killer.  The resolution is quite scary, involving several people who are both insane and evil, and dealing with Virginia's past abuse by both her father and her first husband, with the "Shit Killer"'s wasted life, and with a strange psychiatrist.

The story is full of imaginative action, and it's fast moving and exciting. Webb does not shy away from the moral implications of all his character's actions, and from the unfortunate attractiveness of the "Shit Killer"'s agenda.  Willis and Virginia are flawed and likeable, and even the villains, mostly, are real (if very strange) people, and not wholly villainous.  (The only exception is clearly completely insane.) 

Birthday Review: Stories of Larry Niven

Today is SFWA Grand Master Larry Niven's 81st birthday. I figured I'd compile a selection of my reviews of his work -- problem is, he hasn't done all that much short fiction during my time at Locus. But I do have some reviews of some of his older work from articles I've done for Black Gate over time. So there's enough ...

Problem is, this doesn't really capture how fun his work was when I was reading it in the mid-70s. I really loved his stuff -- the short stories like "Neutron Star" and "Not Long Before the End" and "Rammer" and "The Fourth Profession" and "Inconstant Moon". The Gil the Arm stories. All the Known Space novels, like A Gift From Earth and Protector. Unfortunately, none of those are covered below -- but they're good stuff, yes they are. Here's what I do have something written about:

Galaxy, October 1968

The one truly famous piece in this issue is Larry Niven's "All the Myriad Ways", in which a policeman puzzled by the recent wave of suicides ties them to the recent realization that there are infinite parallel worlds in which we each make slightly different decisions. The implication is that any decision we ourselves make is meaningless -- because "we" will make every possible different decision anyway, in another world. So, why not commit suicide? I remember being really blown away the first time I read the story, but somehow it didn't have the same impact on rereading, and somehow the logic that seemed inevitable on the first reading doesn't convince me now.

Vertex, August 1974

Niven's "Night on Mispek Moor" is set during another company war, this one on a planet of the Leshy circuit. The protagonist is a mercenary from another planet, trapped on the title moor and attacked by zombies. Not a bad story, nothing great.

Cosmos, May 1977

The three Niven pieces were the first three Draco Tavern stories he published. This has become a rather long series of short-shorts, continued to this day in Analog, featuring a first-person narrator named Rick Schumann, who owns a bar in Siberia which caters to a broad range of alien patrons, particularly the insect-like Chirpsithra, who claim to rule the Galaxy. These stories are "Cruel and Unusual", "The Subject is Closed", and "Grammar Lesson". All are slight as may be expected -- perhaps the best is "The Subject is Closed", in which a priest asks the Chirpsithra about life after death.

Odyssey, Summer 1976

(Cover by Boris Vallejo)
The lead story is Larry Niven's long novella, "The Magic Goes Away", about 26,000 words in this version. (It was published as an illustrated trade paperback from Ace in 1978 -- I believe that version is revised, and seems to be about 33,000 words.) The Niven novella is set in the world of his well-known story "Not Long Before the End", in which magic is real but the source of magic, mana, is running out. A swordsman named Orolandes is involved in the last burst of magical power. I remember enjoying it a fair bit as a teenager.

Tangent review of Analog, July-August 2000

The short stories are also a mixed, but decently solid, assortment.  Larry Niven's "The Wisdom of Demons" is a Draco Tavern story, the first I've seen in some years.  The tavern's owner, Dr. Rick Schumann, tells of a man who met an alien that really wanted to understand humans, and was willing to give the man whatever he wanted, in the form of one wish.  It's a fairly insubstantial story, but the result of the wish is clever enough.

Locus, August 2002

Also in the August Asimov's, a first rate issue, Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper offer a sequel to last year's "Ice and Mirrors". "Free Floaters" is set about a decade later.  Kimber and Eric are still partners and sometime lovers.  This story is told from Eric's POV, as they are given a new job, trying to make contact with a strange alien race which lives in the clouds of an isolated "free floating" Jovian world.  The story fairly entertainingly presents an unusual alien race, and perhaps less convincingly examines Kimber and Eric's relationship at a critical stage.

Locus, August 2005

Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper offer, in "Kath and Quicksilver", a fairly enjoyable far-future piece about a girl marooned on doomed Mercury as the Sun expands, and her interesting means of escape. But it fails to convince in its depiction of the far-future posthuman society. (I will say that I was amused by an apparent reference to a famous "mistake" in Niven's first published story, "The Coldest Place", in which Mercury was depicted as keeping one side always toward the Sun. This was "correct" as of time of writing, but obsolete by the time the story was published. In this story, the authors contrive to have Mercury once again orbiting the Sun with one side always facing it.)

Locus, November 2003

In the November Analog the two novelettes are probably the most interesting pieces. Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper offer "The Trellis", about a scientific station on Pluto, and the curious bio-engineered "trellis" of plants linking Pluto and Charon. An adventurous teenaged girl gets trapped on the trellis, and her father and an old man mount a rescue, hampered by the decaying equipment of the station. The twist is that the rescue is broadcast as a sort of virtual adventure entertainment, but this seemed to point an almost trivial moral.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alexander Jablokov

I was really impressed with Alexander Jablokov's early work, in the '90s, particularly "Fragments of a Painted Eggshell", from 1995, which I thought an obvious Hugo contender, except that it appeared in one of the great years for SF novelettes -- that was the year that Greg Egan published "Wang's Carpets", and Ian MacLeod published "Starship Day", and James Patrick Kelly published "Think Like a Dinosaur". Then, around 1998, Jablokov stopped publishing, for about 8 years. Thankfully, his return has been similarly impressive. Today is his birthday, so here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his stories since that return to the field.

Locus, July 2006

There are good stories in the August Asimov's ... Finally, a very welcome return: Alexander Jablokov’s “Dead Man”. An investigator is hunting down a dead man – more properly, a man who has been uploaded into a computer but still survived by accident. Apparently this isn’t allowed. We slowly learn a little bit about the “dead man” and what drives him, and rather more about the investigator and what drives him – particularly his relationship with his mother. Strong work, very nicely using the SF idea purely in the service of looking at human character.

Locus, March 2007

Elsewhere in these two issues there is plenty further fine work. Alexander Jablokov’s return to the field continues in fine form with “Brain Raid” (F&SF, February). A small team from a struggling cognitive repossession firm is sent to recover a rogue AI that has formed in a minimall. But problems arise – it seems the AI is a bit more powerful than they are equipped to handle. The story twists a bit from there, turning on the motivations of the narrator’s supposed friend who tipped them to this job. It’s a nicely plotted piece, and nicely furnished with SFnal detail – and its central idea reminds me that the same idea, AIs becoming too intelligent for the good of humans, certainly of ancient vintage in the field, seems suddenly very fashionable again.

Locus, September 2007

There’s plenty more fine stuff this issue (F&SF, September). Alexander Jablokov’s “Wrong Number” tells engagingly enough of repairing regret over missed opportunities while repairing cars – it sounds odd, and is, but matter of factly so.

Locus, March 2008

The March F&SF has another in a recent mini-genre of stories that aren’t quite SF but that in their retelling of aspects of the Space Race readily satisfy our SF Jones. (Other examples being the film Apollo 13 and Andy Duncan’s “The Chief Designer”.) In “The Boarder”, Alexander Jablokov tells of a Russian immigrant family who take in another immigrant as a boarder: a man who was a minor cog in the Russian space program. Through the eyes of the family’s American-born son we see this curious and obsessed man, and we learn not only something of Russia’s sometimes tragic space adventures, but something of the conflicted experience of the immigrant.

Locus, March 2010

At Asimov’s for March two stories stood out. Alexander Jablokov, one of my favorite new writers of the ‘90s who had mostly gone silent until recently, offers “Blind Cat Dance”, about two things: a strange project to restore habitats to wildlife by engineering them to be blind to humans, so that they live among us; and also about a woman who want to learn to do that sort of work, and her husband’s project to help her, and another man with a different view entirely of the woman and that project. 

Locus, April 2011

The April-May Asimov’s is their first big Double Issue of the new year, and there is a lot of good stuff to be found in it. The cover story is “The Day the Wires Came Down”, a steampunk-flavored story by Alexander Jablokov. Arabella and Andrew are twins, and they take a ride on the “telpher” system on its last day before it will close. The telphers are suspended trains running on wires. The two are looking for a light for their father’s birthday, but they end up with a curious electrode wrapped in a piece of newspaper that tells of a long ago disaster, the sabotage of an old telpher station. They end up following the telpher system to the end of its line, out of the city, still looking for a light while learning in bits and pieces the story of that past disaster, as the telpherman running their car seems to be engaged in his own romantic adventure. The angle of the telling of the story is a bit odd – a necessary choice, perhaps, to maintain mystery and to allow the whole story to unspool, but it does distract the reader, as well, as Arabella and Andrew turn out to be more observers than central to the story. So while I enjoyed it I felt kept a bit at a distance.

Locus, July 2014

The cover story in the July Asimov's is Alexander Jablokov's “The Instructive Tale of the Archaeologist and His Wife”, and it's a very good one. It's set in what seems to be perhaps the far future, after the “technological era” has collapsed. The story turns subtly on the title archaeologist's slow accumulation of unexplainable artifacts, on his difficult relationship with his wife, who joins a crackpottish sect called the Obliviators, on certain mysteries about the past “technological age”, and on his own descent – or ascent – into a brand of what his colleagues would also call crackpottery. And in the end a striking revelation comes to us, about how we can know the past (and, perhaps, at some level about SF and Fantasy writers).

Locus, December 2016

And perhaps the best piece this issue (Asimov's, October-November) is “The Forgotten Taste of Honey”, by Alexander Jablokov, set on a Norsish island controlled by Gods who insist that the corpses of people from their territories be returned if they die in another place. This seems to reduce social mobility a lot, and so traders are viewed with suspicion, and pay for their passage, in a sense, by transporting misplaced corpses to their homes. Tromvi is a middle-aged trader who took up her profession after her husband died in one of the wars/feuds that plague this land. On her current trip she has the corpse of a mountain woman who died by the sea, and this corpse, or its God, seems quite insistent about its journey, particularly when the vagaries of her trip, influenced by more fighting, lead her to a rather suspicious-acting Passkeeper, who seems to want to steal the corpse; and then to a feral young woman. The landscape, again, is well-captured, and the fantastical background struck me as quite original, while the main character gives it all a believable sensible grounding.

Locus, February 2019

In the January-February Asimov's, Alexander Jablokov has another story about Sere, investigating things in the baroque multi-species city of Tempest. In “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” she begins by trying to free her cousin’s boyfriend from prison, and ends up stumbling on something much more significant. The best part of the story, as with its predecessor, is the gleeful description of the odd configurations and habits of the various alien species. Fun stuff.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Birthday Review: The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Today would have been Terry Pratchett's 71st birthday, but he died, not yet 67, in 2015. In his memory, then, here's a repost of something short I wrote a while ago on my SFF Net newsgroup.

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

a review by Rich Horton

I've read a few of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels with general enjoyment -- but they have left me wondering for the most part exactly why they are so very popular. (Doubtless in part, as I have been assured, because I haven't read the right ones.) Put simply, to me they have seemed nice comic novels with some worthwhile gentle satire -- but by no means masterpieces. Now I have read what I think is my favorite Discworld book so far -- and perhaps not surprisingly it is not part of the main sequence. This is The Wee Free Men, the first of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching sequence of nominally Young Adult Discworld books.

Tiffany is a nine year old girl living in on the Chalk. She is part of a sheepherding family. She has older siblings and a very annoying younger brother, Wentworth. One day she is playing by the river when she encounters a bunch of tiny (six inches tall or so) blue men -- and a monster. She uses Wentworth as bait for the monster -- rather shocking, that, using her little brother that way -- but quite successful as well, for she is able to send the beast packing.

She thereby attracts the attention of Miss Tick, a witch. Miss Tick cannot practice magic on the Chalk, but she decides that Tiffany must be a witch -- and perhaps one who can practice magic. This is important because another world is impinging dangerously on this one (evidently Discworld, though one of the different features of this particular Discworld book is that really it could have been set just as well in our world, looked at a bit slant). It will be up to Tiffany to deal with this impingement. Luckily, she has the help of the little men she saw -- the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. Luckily too she has the memories of her Granny Aching, who must also have been a witch -- mustn't she? Even if all the magic she did seems to have had a sensible explanation. ("It's still magic if you know how it's done.")

And so Tiffany and the Nac Mac Feegle will find their way to the realm of the Faerie Queen -- or "Quin" as the Wee Free Men would have it. And a combination of Tiffany's resourcefulness and growing understanding with the Wee Free Men's vigor and absurd bravery will (of course) save the day. I liked the book a great deal. Tiffany is a wonderful character -- so too is her Granny. The Wee Free Men are hilariously portrayed. Little bits like the most horrible menace the Queen can find to face the Wee Free Men are just plain funny. And the story is sensible and humane as well. Not moralistic but essentially moral without being a lesson. There are at least a couple more Tiffany Aching books, which I will have to scare up.

Ace Double Reviews, 7: Reality Forbidden, by Philip E. High/Contraband From Otherspace, by A. Bertram Chandler

Ace Double Reviews, 7: Reality Forbidden, by Philip E. High/Contraband From Otherspace, by A. Bertram Chandler (#G-609, 1967, $0.50)

by Rich Horton

Last year I posted an Ace Double featuring Philip E. High on the occasion of his birthday -- April 28. I have another one, so why not post it this year?

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Kelly Freas)
Reality Forbidden is about 53,000 words long, and Contraband from Otherspace about 35,000. As far as I can tell, this Ace Double represents the first publication of either novel in any form. (Which is not to say that there might not have been a short story antecedent to the Chandler in particular. High didn't publish all that much short fiction, and oddly enough his short fiction career was quite disjoint from his novel writing career. At least according to the ISFDB, his short stories were all published between 1955 and 1963, and his first novel was in 1964, his last in 1979.)

Philip E. High was an English author who wrote a number of shortish novels, mostly in the 60s. He bears comparison, perhaps, with J. T. M'Intosh, though he was not so prolific a short story writer as M'Intosh. But he fit the same sort of niche: a not very good writer who still produced oddly interesting stuff -- just weird enough to attract attention, but generally disappointing in the execution. David Langford is something of a proponent of High's work.

Reality Forbidden opens with a couple of men escaping from England to Canada. It turns out that a device which allows people to create their own reality (sort of a virtual reality, though more by telepathy than any computer hookup) was invented some decades previously. It was outlawed in most of the world, including England, but it was so easy to make that black market versions keep turning up. In Canada it was never outlawed, and supposedly Canadians have adapted to living with everyone using such a device.

The two men were arrested on suspicion of being involved with creating such a device, and sent to Canada as spies in lieu of imprisonment. (Which doesn't seem very sensible, but let that pass.) One of the men turns out to be an "Immune", and before long he is in cahoots with the heroic Canadian resistance to the evil forces that control the rest of the world. Which, it turns out, all emanate from an alien invader ... Weird stuff, and it doesn't really hold together very well at all. Still, it is definitely an interesting story, and quite original. (It is apparently often cited as one of the earlier uses of Virtual Reality in an SF story.)

A. Bertram Chandler was an English-born Australian seaman who began writing SF for Astounding in the 40s. His most famous stories are about Commodore John Grimes, a spaceship Captain in the Rim Worlds of our Galaxy. Chandler's spaceships, not surprisingly, recall sea ships a lot, particularly in the command organization.

Contraband From Otherspace is a rather disappointing Grimes novel. Grimes has just got married to Sonya Verrill, an Intelligence Officer from the Federation. (The Federation is the association of more inward worlds including Earth.) They are preparing to retire from their respective services and perhaps buy a ship of their own. But at the last moment, more or less, a mysterious ship shows up, seemingly out of nowhere. It's a derelict, full of corpses. It is soon enough determined that the ship comes from another universe (transition between universes is easy out on the Rim.) In that universe, rats mutated to become human-sized and intelligent, and they subsequently enslaved humans, and also used them for meat.

Grimes and Sonya take a crew, rehab the derelict ship, and, by unconvincing means, make their way to the other universe, there to confront the rats. They make their way to a world of lizards, whom Grimes has earlier befriended, and they enlist the lizards to help set things right, and make it so that the rats no longer enslave the humans.

Chandler's stories never worried over much about making even the remotest scientific sense, but in some cases, as this one, things just get too absurd. The oh so convenient transition between universes, the rapid mutation of the rats, the coincidental landing in just the right place on the lizard planet ... there are just too many bits of sheer silliness in this story. It just didn't work for me. Some of the silliness (such as the rats using English, except that every vowel is replaced with an "ee" sound, like a squeak, see) is clearly for fun, and sort of tolerable, but more of it is just ad hoc lets advance the plot any old way stuff. I confess I've never been a big fan of Chandler, but others of his stories are at least decent fun. This one doesn't rise to that level. (One more cavil -- the title is just plain meaningless! I thought the story would be about parallel world smuggling -- potentially a fine idea. But there's no contraband in the book at all.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 78: One of Our Asteroids is Missing, by Calvin Knox/The Twisted Men, by A. E. Van Vogt

Ace Double Reviews, 78: One of Our Asteroids is Missing, by Calvin Knox/The Twisted Men, by A. E. Van Vogt (#F-253, 1964, $0.40)

A review by Rich Horton

(A. E. Van Vogt was born April 26, 1912. In his memory then, here's another of his Ace Doubles. I've covered biographical/career details of both writers in earlier posts on this blog, so I'll skip that here.)

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Jack Gaughan)
This Ace Double, from 1964, features SFWA Grand Masters back to back. And, indeed, it features the very last Ace Double contribution from each prolific writer. "Calvin Knox", of course, is a pseudonym, a very Protestant pseudonym, for Robert Silverberg. One of our Asteroids is Missing is a shortish novel, about 36,000 words. The Twisted Men is a story collection, the three pieces totaling some 39,000 words. (Incidentally, this is an Ace Double, and not the only one, for which the covers were switched -- Emshwiller's cover was intended for The Twisted Men, and Gaughan's for One of Our Asteroids is Missing.)

One of Our Asteroids is Missing certainly reads like late-50s Silverberg, and the cover says "First Book Publication", which strongly suggests that it was first published in an earlier, perhaps shorter, magazine version, perhaps in Science Fiction Adventures, for which Silverberg contributed a great deal of novella-length fiction. But I can't find anything -- none of the stories Silverberg published as by Knox in the magazines have likely titles, at any rate. There was a Mack Reynolds story called "One of Our Planets is Missing!" in the November 1950 Amazing, but I'm sure that's unrelated.

The story opens with John Storm finding a valuable asteroid, full of useful metals. He had promised himself two years looking for asteroids, after which he'd either have struck it rich or he'd go and take a job with Universal Mining Cartel -- either way, he'd marry his girlfriend Liz. he heads to Mars and files a claim, then heads to Earth, and to his shock, his claim doesn't exist any more. And indeed, HE doesn't exist any more, at least not in the government's records. He heads back to Mars to find out what happened, and he learns that UMC is behind all this -- they've bribed a guy to make his claim disappear, then filed their own claim.

Up to about this point, I was rather enjoying the story. A fairly interesting mystery, some good action, a decent pulp-style hero, crisp if not brilliant writing. But it starts to go off the rails when Storm heads back to "his" asteroid to see what UMC is up to. On the asteroid he finds that UMC are trying to move it (!!), and that they are hiding a mysterious secret -- big surprise -- and then gets captured by UMC, who, instead of doing the obvious thing and just kill him, try to buy him off for a few million dollars, which is more than he had originally expected to get anyway. But he refuses to be bought, and instead -- well, I don't want to give away the surprise, though it isn't really that interesting, but the story comes to an ending in kind of a different direction than I felt the beginning really merited. On the whole I didn't think the novel worked very well, not even counting silliness like the not well worked out travel times to the asteroids, etc.

The Twisted Men collects three rather minor Van Vogt stories from lesser SF magazines around 1950. They are "The Twisted Men" (17600 words), first published as "Rogue Ship" in the March 1950 Super Science Stories; "The Star-Saint" (9300 words), first published in the March 1951 Planet Stories, and "The Earth Killers" (12000 words), first published in the April 1949 Super Science Stories.

"The Twisted Men" tells of a scientist who believes the Sun is a variable star, and a sort of mini-nova will destroy life on Earth in a few years. The only hope is to send an colony expedition to Alpha Centauri. He is dismissed as a crackpot, but still manages to build a ship and send it off, with an odd mix of volunteers. He stays home on Earth and is shocked when the ship returns early. But it doesn't stop -- all attempts to get into it fail -- it crashes through Earth leaving a big furrow and returns to space. The hero finally gets aboard, and everyone is "frozen". He eventually realizes that they are actually going nearly the speed of light, in, somehow, their reference frame, so they are feeling the effects of time dilation (and the Lorentz contraction as well, which is where the "twisted" part comes in). All this is really silly and just plain wrong distortion of relativity, resolved by the hero somehow entering the ship's field of reference, and learning that they are, somehow, both near Earth and near Alpha Centauri, so the colony mission can go on, with he, rather creepily, replacing the 50 year old captain as the putative wife of a now 17 year old girl. It has to be said, as with much Van Vogt, that the silliness of the ideas is partly redeemed by the cockeyed originality of them.

"The Star-Saint" concerns a new colony that has been mysterious wiped out, on what seems to be an empty planet. The title character shows up, more or less out of nowhere, and learns to communicate with the planet, which is somehow sentient and has been sending rocks to attack the colonists. He negotiates an agreement for mutual benefit. Again, often silly, but some interesting ideas too. Could have been pretty good with a rewrite, I think.

In "The Earth Killers" the US is nearly destroyed by a nuclear attack. But no other country seems to have sent the bombs. And the hero, an Air Force pilot, had been testing a new plane at the time of the attack and he witness a bomb, which he thought was coming in nearly vertically, as if the attack was from space. But he is not believed, and it is assumed he is concealing the actual villain country. So he goes to prison, but escapes to try to find the real villains, whom he assumes are on a base on the moon. The eventual answer wasn't quite what I expected, and indeed was a pretty good solution. It's not really a very plausible story, and it's somewhat too long, but it's not bad.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Novels of Avram Davidson

The Novels of Avram Davidson

by Rich Horton

Today would have been Avram Davidson's 96th birthday. He died in 1993. In his memory, here's a repost of something I did back in 2003 on rec.arts.sf.written, a quick summary of his novels. For the most part I don't say much about them. I've revised it to account for the 2005 publication of The Scarlet Fig.

[Revised again in 2023 to add links to reviews of the two novels I hadn't previously read plus Beer! Beer! Beer! I also briefly mention his "Ellery Queen" novels, which I also haven't read. And I deleted a mention of the then recent Wildside Press reprints, though I think some of those are still available. And I added mention of Davidson's "Ellery Queen" novels --- thanks to Rob Gerrand for reminding me of them.]

Avram Davidson is one of my favorite authors, but his reputation, with me as with most anyone, is founded on his short fiction (and, I suppose, to some extent on his exotic nonfiction, as with Adventures in Unhistory). Davidson's strengths were a sharp moral sense, a fascination with curious minutiae, a quirky imagination, obfuscation to good effect, and a glorious sprung prose rhythm. All of these strengths, it seems to me, are better displayed at shorter lengths. His novels tended to be sloppily plotted, or to display signs of lost interest, or to simply not finish (as in the case of his several series begun but never completed). Thus I urge those who have not yet discovered Davidson to seek out the short fiction, recently collected in such places as The Avram Davidson Treasury, The Investigations of Avram Davidson, and The Other Nineteenth Century. Highlights include the Engelbert Eszterhazy stories, the Jack Limekiller stories, "The Sources of the Nile", "The Slovo Stove", "What Strange Stars and Skies", "El Vilvoy de Las Islas", "Dragon Skin Drum", "Dagon", "The Lord of Central Park", and many more.

But here we consider the novels. Several were written in the middle sixties, and published as paperback originals, probably for minimal advances, probably written fairly quickly. These show signs of being forced into rather pulpish and conventional plot frames, and the exuberance of the writing is sometimes muted. Still, the prose does break free at times, and Davidson's imagination remains compelling. 

Many of the novels were parts of projected series, though these series were not usually finished. Here's a summary of Davidson's "novel series", with the books listed in (to the best of my knowledge) internal chronological order. (After the series summary, I'll list and describe all the novels individually).

1. Dragon
The Kar-Chee Reign (1966), Rogue Dragon (1965) -- no more ever planned or needed

2. Vergil
Vergil in Averno (1987), The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), The Scarlet Fig; or Slowly, Through a Land of Stone (2005)

Up to six more "Vergil" books were reputedly planned. A number of short stories about Vergil have also been published, some of which may be extracts from The Scarlet Fig. Here's David Tate's list of the Vergil short stories:

"Vergil and the Caged Bird", Amazing, January 1987
"Vergil and the Dukos: Hic Inclusus Vitam Perdit, or The Imitations of the King", Asimov's, September 1997
"Yellow Rome, or Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", Weird Tales, Winter 1992/1993, also in The Avram Davidson Treasury
"Vergil Magus: King Without Country", with Michael Swanwick, Asimov's, July 1998
"The Other Magus", in Edges, Eds. Ursula K. Le Guin & Virginia Kidd (Pocket Books; Berkley paperback, 1980)
"Sea-Scene, or Vergil and the Ox-Thrall", Asimov's, February 1993
"Young Vergil and the Wizard", Infinite Matrix, December 2001

I have heard that there are possibly another half-dozen unpublished shorts.

3. "Starflux/Earthflux"
The Island Under the Earth (1969), The Six-Limbed Folk (apparently never written), The Cap of Grace (apparently never written)

4. Peregrine
Peregrine: Primus (1971), Peregrine: Secundus (1981)

A third Peregine book was planned but never written. Davidson's son Ethan wrote a novelette, "Peregrine: Parentus", based on Avram's notes for the final novel. It was published in 2016, but I haven't seen it.

Now, to briefly describe the various novels individually. I'll list them in publication order, to the best of my knowledge. There are a couple I haven't yet read. Also, many of them I read in short order as I found them used in about 1994, which was before I kept notes on the books I read. Which means I don't remember them all very well.

Joyleg (with Ward Moore) (1962)

A version was serialized in Fantastic. This is one of three novel-length (or nearly so) collaborations by Davidson: the other two are with his ex-wife Grania Davis. This novel is about a man living in the back hills of Tennessee who turns out to be a veteran of the American Revolution. The secret of longevity attracts the attention of the American Government, and the Soviets as well, and much political foofaraw occurs, much revolving around the book's real main characters, a Congressman and Congresswoman (the "woman" underlined on the back of my 1962 Pyramid paperback -- I suppose that was considered almost more SFnal than a 200 year old guy back in 1962). I thought it went on a bit long, and that it read too much like Ward Moore and not enough like Davidson. Minor.

Mutiny in Space (1964)

Expansion of the Worlds of Tomorrow novella "Valentine's Planet". Probably the least of Davidson's novels. It is reminiscent of Poul Anderson's slightly earlier Virgin Planet, in that it features a man or men spacewrecked on a planet dominated by women who, it turns out, are just looking for a REAL MAN [TM]. In this case a mutiny leads to a spaceship crew being marooned, on a planet where the males are all small and childlike (as I recall), so that the women rule. Naturally, things change. It's not horrible, and not completely un-Davidsonian, but it's not very good, either.

And on the Eighth Day (as by "Ellery Queen") (1964)
The Fourth Side of the Triangle (as by "Ellery Queen") (1965)

These two novels were ghost-written by Davidson for Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, the originators of Ellery Queen. It's possible that they were written to an outline by Dannay and/or Lee. I have not read them. Some sources also claim that Davidson wrote The House of Brass (1968), but others (Francis M. Nevins) say that Davidson did write an expansion of Dannay's outline, but it was rejected, and Lee eventually finished the novel himself.

Masters of the Maze (1965)

The first novel to show real signs of Davidson's true obsessions, and his true, or mature, prose style. It's a weird thing, and I didn't really find it wholly successful, but I found aspects quite fascinating. I admit I don't remember it well at this remove, but it involved weird alien creatures in control of a "Maze" that allowed travel through space and time, and a failing young writer, and dangerous aliens who need to be stopped.

Rogue Dragon (1965)

Davidson earned a Nebula nomination for this, though it should be noted that in those days (this was the first year of the Nebula awards), the rules were different, and the list of nominated works is rather long. The aliens known as the Kar-Chee came to Earth and brought the Dragons with them, but the Kar-Chee have been defeated, but Earth is an exhausted backwater. Now the Dragons are hunted for sport by rich men from elsewhere in the Galaxy. Jon-Joras, the hero, comes to realize that this sport must cease. A decent, fun, sometimes dark, novel.

Rork! (1965)

In an exhausted human-colonized portion of the Galaxy, a young man goes to Pia 2, "the most remote, isolated, world in the Galaxy", and gets involved in a conflict between entrenched colonialist men who have enslaved the local species called "Tocks", and the Wild Tocks, all further complicated by the danger of the fierce rorks, yet another species. Parts of it were quite good, parts, particularly the ending, were simply rushed.

The Enemy of My Enemy (1966)

I don't remember this one well. A fugitive gets surgically transformed to become a Tarnisi, and ends up affecting the course of a hopeless war between Tarnis and some other nations. The solution is slightly unexpected. I don't think this was one of my favorite early Davidson novels, but as I say I don't remember it well.

Clash of Star-Kings (1966)

Very short novel (about 38,000 words, originally half of an Ace Double) that appeared on the Nebula nomination list for Best Novella of 1966. It depicts a conflict between alien entities as a conflict between the ancient Gods of the Aztecs and the Olmecs, witnessed by a couple of writers living in Mexico to save money. Pretty good stuff, best I think for the depiction of everyday life for American expatriates in Mexico. My full review is here: Review of Clash of Star-Kings/Danger From Vega.

The Kar-Chee Reign (1966)

Prequel to Rogue Dragon, telling of the end of the period of Kar-Chee oppression of Earth. My full review is here: Review of Rocannon's World/The Kar-Chee Reign.

The Island Under the Earth (1969)

Published as one of the celebrated first series of Ace Specials in 1969. Here the source of Davidson's imagination is closer to Greek myth. The novel is set in a strange land with such creatures as Harpies and especially Centaurs. Unfortunately I remember little else except that I liked it, and that I was saddened to hear that Davidson never wrote the sequels.

The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969)

First published by Doubleday in 1969 (as far as I know, the Vergil novels are the only Davidson novels originally published in hardcover), then as an Ace Special in 1970, expanded from a 1966 novella in Fantastic. Perhaps Davidson's most highly-regarded novel. It is an "Alternate History Fantasy", set in a Roman Empire full of magic, and alchemy, and strange creatures, in which the poet Vergil was a powerful sorcerer. This novel is about Vergil's search for the perfect Speculum, or mirror, and his involvement with several women. It is the first novel in which Davidson gave full reign to his fascination with the oddities of history and "unhistory", and in which he let his prose style loose to its full flowering of elegant eccentricity.

Peregrine: Primus (1971)

Perhaps Davidson's single most engaging novel, and the most overtly comedic of them. It's set in another alternate Roman Empire. As I said in my review of the Wildside reprint, for Maelstrom SF: The story is set in an alternate history. Peregrine is the younger son of "the last pagan King in lower Europe". When he reaches his majority, his father reluctantly exiles him, in order to prevent trouble with the Crown Prince. So begin Peregrine's, er, peregrinations. Accompanied by a faithful page and an aging sorcerer, he roams about "lower Europe", encountering the remnants of an eccentric Roman Empire, a wide variety of mutually heretical Christians, and many other wonders.

Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973)

Set in the now vanished Arctic continent Ultima Thule, this novel follows Arnten, a boy who may be the son of a were-bear, as he flees persecution due to his differences from his fellows, finds his father, and ends up on a mission to solve the curse that is poisoning the iron in his kingdom. A minor effort. Here is my review.

Peregrine: Secundus (1981)

Much of a muchness with Peregrine: Primus, it continues Peregrine's story without seeming to bring it closer to any sort of conclusion. I'd say it's not quite as good as the first book but still quite enjoyable. Assembled from a 1973 novelette in F&SF ("Peregrine: Alflandia"), and a 1980 novella in Asimov's ("Peregrine Perplexed").

Vergil in Averno (1987)

The prequel to The Phoenix in the Mirror, telling of Vergil's journey to the underworld. I found it a lot harder going than its predecessor, to be honest.

Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (with Grania Davis) (1988)

Enjoyable novel about Marco Polo, along with his father and uncle, setting about in search of the Sleeping Beauty, at the behest of Kublai Khan. Lots of adventures with mostly legendary creatures ... dragons, griffins, magical carp, a sphinx, dog-headed pirates, a serpent woman, etc. ... in somewhat legendary places ... old Cathay, the Pleasure Isle, a hidden valley in Tebet, etc. My full review.

The Boss in the Wall (with Grania Davis) (1998)

A long novella (perhaps 32,000 words) extracted (by Davis) from a much longer novel that Davidson had been working on for some time when he died. This was published in book form by Tachyon after Davidson's death. It's good stuff, with much of the classic Davidson flavor, about nasty critters that lurk in the walls of houses.

An extract from my review for Tangent: So what is it about? To quote: "A Paper-Man or Paper-Doll or Paper-Doll Man. A Hyett or Hetter or Header. A Greasy-Man or String-Fellow. A Rustler or Clicker or Clatterer. And/or other names." Or the "House-Devil". Or "The Boss in the Wall". Professor Vlad Smith moves into a new house. Which is a very old house, owned by his Uncle Mose. Almost immediately, something unexplainable and scary kills his Uncle and puts his wife and daughter into states of shock. A local doctor puts Vlad in touch with Professor Edward Bagnell, who has been investigating sightings of the "House-Devil". And we follow Vlad, and Bagnell, and others in a rambling search through the available scholarly and semi-scholarly and crackpot records of other potential "Paper Men", "Rustlers", and "Bosses in the Wall", to an encounter with a mysterious committee studying the phenomenon, and to a resolution to (at least) Vlad's story.

The Scarlet Fig (2005)

I wrote this for Fantasy Magazine when this novel finally came out (in a lovely and expensive hardcover edition): Some books have significance and value beyond their pure value as novels. Certainly The Scarlet Fig is one such – the long awaited third Vergil novel from the late Avram Davidson. Its value as fiction is high enough, mind you. It’s very characteristic of late Davidson, stuffed with evidence of his erudition, the prose complicated, eccentric, enjoyable for those of us who have a taste for Davidson’s prose. (That said, often a bit prolix, perhaps a bit too precious.) The story concerns Vergil’s travels after he leaves Rome (“Yellow Rome”), fearful of accusations of having tarnished a Vestal Virgin, and also menaced by piratical Carthaginians. He visits many strange shores: Corsica, Tingitayne, the Region called Huldah (and its beautiful eponymous ruler), the island of the Lotophageans, where he drinks of the Scarlet Fig, and finally the Land of Stone in North Africa. All along we witness much magic and many wonders – all reflecting the altered Rome of Davidson’s Vergil Magus, a Rome reflecting the legends that accumulated in the Middle Ages: so, gloriously grotesque satyrs, victims of the cockatrix, the dogs of the Guaramanty, etc. I enjoyed it greatly, particularly the character of Vergil and the mix of darkness and strangeness throughout. It is also beautifully presented: a large handsome hardcover, with beautiful illustrations, and much excellent additional material to the novel: afterwords by both Davis and Wessells, and several appendices including a few “deleted scenes” and reproductions of some notecards from Davidson’s collection (“Encyclopedia”) of Vergilian research.

Beer! Beer! Beer! (2021)

Seth Davis, Davidson's godson (and the son of his ex-wife Grania Davis) has been working to bring much of Davidson's work back to print, and Gregory Feeley alerted Seth to this unpublished book. Seth published it in 2021. It's an entertaining novel, non-SF, about a real incident in Davidson's hometown, Yonkers, during prohibition, in which a pipe was discovered out of which flowed beer. I reviewed the novel when it came out: here

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Naomi Kritzer

Today is Naomi Kritzer's birthday. She began publishing fiction about when I began at Locus, and she's been doing strong work all along, but obviously she got particular notice with the 2016 Hugo winner for Best Short Story, "Cat Pictures, Please". And she's on the current Hugo shortlist for Best Novelette with a very fine story, "The Thing About Ghost Stories". Here's a compilation of my Locus reviews of her short fiction:

Locus, October 2002

The October Realms of Fantasy features no less than 3 stories in fairy tale mode. Two are retellings of familiar fairy tales as science fiction. Naomi Kritzer's "In the Witch's Garden" is based on "The Snow Queen". The children, real and "made", of an enclave of scientists are conditioned never to leave lest the Snow Queen find them. The title witch finds one such "made" girl after she escapes, and wishing a daughter of her own, kidnaps her. But her new "daughter" remembers eventually that she was looking for a friend of hers who had also escaped, and she leaves on a journey to find this boy. What she finds instead, inevitably, is a "conceptual breakthrough" (to use Peter Nicholls' term) about the nature of their world. The reader will likely have guessed most of what is going on well in advance, but the story still satisfies.

Locus, May 2004

The webzine Strange Horizons has a reputation as a slipstream-oriented site, but it opens 2004 with 3 fairly pure science fiction stories ... Naomi Kritzer's novelette "St. Ailbe's Hall" (1/19-1/26) considers the question of whether enhanced animals (dogs in this case) have souls and can be accepted into the Catholic Church. It's a worthwhile and longstanding SFnal theme, and her story (told through the eyes of a priest) is involving and moving, but I wasn't quite convinced by the societal background to her story, and by the reactions of the general populace.

Locus, March 2009

Baen’s Universe tends to have a science-fiction bias, but it was the fantasy stories that I preferred this February. Naomi Kritzer’s “The Good Son” is a familiar story from one point of view – a faery falls for a human woman and comes to our world to seduce her. But what makes it special is not his courtship of his lover – rather, it is the relationship he is forced into with an older couple he tricks into serving as his parents in order to make his backstory more convincing. An original and quite moving slant on an old story.

Locus, March 2013

“Solidarity” (F&SF, March-April), another of Naomi Kritzer's stories of life in a purported Libertarian Utopia, which as the title rather strongly signals, suggests that economic forces can create something nearly indistinguishable from slavery even in (or perhaps especially in) a society ostensibly based on individual freedom. (I find these stories (which seem well on their way to forming a novel) engaging and entertaining but perhaps pushing a bit too hard to make their point – less sneering villains, for one thing, would to my mind lead to a more powerful ultimate message.) In this story, Beck has been kicked out by her father for helping expose the nasty labor situation on New Minerva, and while on her own she learns of a plot to disrupt the funeral of the labor leader, Miguel, who was featured in the previous story.

Locus, March 2015

The January Clarkesworld is #100 ... I really liked a very funny short story by Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures, Please”, about an emergent AI that decides it has to do good for people, though it must be paid, in cat pictures of course. The three cases it takes on are interesting themselves, and the AI's reactions are priceless – I laughed aloud in public.

Locus, January 2016

In Clarkesworld's November issue “So Much Cooking”, is a fine, affecting, story by Naomi Kritzer about an epidemic of bird flu, told in the form of several entries from a cooking blog, as the blogger reports on how hard it is to cook when a city is quarantined and as you keep taking in more children who need a place to stay.

Locus, May 2017

Clarkesworld’s March issue has three consecutive stories that issue that struck me in a similar way. These stories use sure-enough science fiction ideas (not just furniture) in the pursuit of low key character exploration – and indeed, all wander to not terribly dramatic conclusions. And I liked them all – “Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Café”, by Naomi Kritzer, is set in a café in South Dakota, where the narrator is marooned while trying to get home to reconcile with her parents before an asteroid hits the Earth (or misses, depending on luck). She meets a friendly couple, who understand her, it seems, a lot better than her parents, who broke with her over her sexuality. Again, the question isn’t about the end of the world – it’s about the narrator’s modest choice. And it’s nicely, if a bit patly, handled.

Locus, July 2017

Uncanny’s May-June issue is further proof that it stands with any of our field’s zines: always interesting, and usually justifying the “uncanny” name. ... Even better, I think, in its short space, is “Paradox”, by Naomi Kritzer, which is told by a time traveler (or travelers?) in a series of paragraphs, explaining what’s up with the timeline(s), and why it’s so hard to get things right.

Speaking of Naomi Kritzer, I should mention her first collection, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories. The title story won a Hugo, and there are numerous other excellent stories here (I particularly like “Scrap Dragon” and “So Much Cooking”), and also two new pieces, of which my favorite is “Ace of Spades”, about a journalist in China, reporting on an Iraq-like war in which the US is using remotely-operated robots. The geopolitics don’t convince (China isn’t Iraq, and that matters), but the personal story of Natalie and her father and her reasons for being there really does work.

Locus, January 2019

In Uncanny’s year-end issue I liked Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories”, which tells affectingly of a woman, a folklorist who is an expert on ghost stories, and her relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, both before and after her mother’s death.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Damien Broderick

Today is the 75th birthday of Damien Broderick. Broderick has written some of my favorite short fiction over the past decade -- scientifically provocative, fun stories, in a variety of voices. (He's also a first rate novelist and writer of non-fiction.)

Here's a selection of my Locus reviews of Damien's short fiction over the past decade. While I'm here, I'd also like to recommend a particular favorite novella of mine, "The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear's Stead", first published in the Ursula K. Le Guin/Virginia Kidd anthology Edges in 1980, and reprinted by us at Lightspeed a few years ago, and also in Damien's collection Uncle Bones. I include my review of that story at SF Site below as well.

I'd also like to mention my recent review in Black Gate of Damien's updated version of John Brunner's 1950s novel Threshold of Eternity.

Locus, January 2009

Damien Broderick returns to short fiction with “Uncle Bones”, a YA-flavored zombie tale – and pure science fiction. Jim lives with his mother and his uncle, but his uncle is dead – and reanimated by nanotechnology: lucky enough – for certain values of “lucky” – to get an experimental and not wholly successful treatment – side effects include a terrible smell and flaky skin and worse. Jim knows another “Stinky” – the sister of one of his friends. He’s not sure what to think about the whole thing, but when it seems his Uncle might be involved in something shady, he tries to find out what’s going on … with unfortunate results. It’s an enjoyable story, if just a bit predictable and perhaps too convenient in its resolution.

Locus, May 2009

Damien Broderick’s “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide”, from the April-May Asimov’s, is a beautiful story about Sam Park, come to Titan to investigate a mysterious spaceship – complete with lizardlike pilot and flowers. A variety of theories are in play, mostly involving aliens, but Sam believes this ship was sent by intelligent dinosaurs, a theory that invites contempt from the mainstream scientists, contempt perhaps further fueled by his advocacy of paranormal powers – something reluctantly accepted by the scientists who witness teleportation and telepresence used in the investigation. This speculation, tied with discussions of the Fermi Paradox, is fascinating, but the heart of the story is Sam’s own character: a single father mourning his dead son (as signaled by the perfect title, taken from Rudyard Kipling’s “My Boy Jack”, a poem lamenting his son’s death in the Great War).

Locus, August 2009

At Asimov’s for August I was again very impressed by a Damien Broderick story. “The Qualia Engine” tells of a group of children whose parents were genetically engineered, way back in the 1950s, for enhanced intelligence. The children have inherited much of that intelligence (but not all: regression to the norm). The narrator, Saul, is close friends for life with three of his fellows. His “hard problem” is the nature of human emotions, and he works on the title “engine”, which will allow people to directly experience others’ emotions. But, as he reflects on his own life, his own feelings, the eventual success of the project is a two-edged sword indeed. The story is sharply told, very funny at times, and ultimately very powerful.

Locus, October 2009

Tor.com keeps publishing interesting work. .. Damien Broderick offers a story that appeals to nostalgia in a different way. “The Ruined Queen of Harvest World” explicitly invokes Cordwainer Smith in a tale of uplifted cats looking for freedom, and of a glorious romance between a science fictionally plausible Harvest goddess figure and a dead man (sort of). It’s fun stuff, but just a bit too arch, and it makes a good try but doesn’t quite succeed in echoing Smith’s “incantatory” style.

From my review of Uncle Bones (collection) at SF Site

The best two stories are those from the 1980s. "The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear's Stead" appeared in 1980 in Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd's original anthology Edges. (Le Guin is not thought of as an anthologist, but she and Kidd edited two impressive books around that time: Edges and Interfaces.) This is a bravura performance, spectacularly written and stuffed with SFnal ideas. The title character is an historian from the future, and an Ainu, sent back in time to observe the fall of the "Old Galactics," an empire of Neanderthals. It's often provocative -- incest is a major theme, for instance, and so is personal hygiene, and so is genocide. (Neither the Ainu depicted here nor the Neanderthals have attitudes much in sympathy with 21st Century Western attitudes.) As I mentioned, the writing is arresting, often quite funny (as with the depiction of the Emperor's robots, modelled on Karl Marx and Adam Smith), sometimes punny, sometimes bawdy. I think it rather a discovery.

Locus, February 2010

In the February Asimov's I also enjoyed Damien Broderick’s “Dead Air”. Broderick’s recent stories have been riffing on past masters of SF, such as Roger Zelazny and Cordwainer Smith, and here he takes on Philip Dick, with a pretty much pitch perfect pastiche, in a story that slyly also confronts some ideas of a less well-remembered SF writer, as it talks of “thetans” taking over people’s TV sets to deliver messages. And behind the wacky furniture lurks a sad story of a divorced man and his lost children.

Locus, August 2010

There is a lot more to like in the Spring issue of Subterranean – but my favorite story is by Damien Broderick. “Under the Moons of Venus” is another of his stories that riffs on a famous SF writer’s work – but Broderick makes the story entirely his own. The title seems to reflect Burroughs, and the last line echoes yet another famous writer, but the story really is in conversation with a third (who I won’t mention, though I think it will be clear enough to readers). Blackett lives, he thinks, on a nearly deserted Earth. He, along with much of humankind, was briefly on an alien-altered Venus, but he has been returned. He hopes to go back to Venus, and tries to find a way; while his psychiatrist tries to convince him he’s delusional. There’s also a talking dog, and an obese Turkish bibliophile. It is not clear to this reader whether Blackett or his psychiatrist has the right of it, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a very well written story, profoundly evocative, and whatever your interpretation of events, deeply moving.

Locus, May 2011

Damien Broderick’s sudden resurgence over the past three years or so has been simply a wonder. (Not that Broderick was not already a noticeably excellent writer, but he had never been all that prolific, especially at shorter lengths.) “The Beancounter’s Cat” (Eclipse 4) tells of Bonida, a humble woman – a beancounter – who suddenly acquires a talking cat. The woman lives in Regio City on a curious world perched under the “Skydark”, near the ancient “Skyfallen Heights”. There are cantrips for cleaning, and an Absent Goddess, Lalune, but it’s clear enough that this is a far future with Clarkean technology indistinguishable from magic. The story revolves around Bonida’s dead mother’s true nature, and Bonida’s destiny, which may be humanity’s. The themes are typical of Broderick, one of our prophets of the posthuman, and the telling, in a rather arch, formal, style, is lovely, and the SFnal mysteries are worthy of revealing – and revealed nicely.

Locus, December 2013

One of the interesting features of SF is the sometimes open collaboration of writers, one extending another's ideas. Robert Silverberg has enthusiastically participated in this sort of collaboration, for example extending Isaac Asimov's 1941 classic “Nightfall” to a full-length novel in 1990. Now he gets the same treatment, as Damien Broderick has written a long novella, “Quicken”, beginning more or less at the end of Silverberg's 1974 classic “Born With the Dead”. The two stories are published together as Beyond the Doors of Death. “Quicken” is a fully successful sequel, not betraying the original at all but recognizably Broderick's vision. (Indeed, at the beginning I thought of Silverberg, but by the end Van Vogt was in my mind.) “Quicken” is like “Born With the Dead” told from the POV of Jorge Klein, whose wife Sybille has been “rekindled” after her too early death. In the first story Klein was disappointed by Sybille's indifference – the dead are cold, above all (and Silverberg's prose perfectly captured this coldness). Now, in Broderick's story, Klein too has been rekindled, and he is similarly “cold”. But he finds himself recruited to be an ambassador from the Deads to the “Warms”, in an increasingly dangerous world where the still living resent the rekindled. The story begins a a slow pace, introducing Klein to his new state, but then begins to leap forward, into a future riven by war between the quick and the dead (if you'll pardon me), and then still forward, by century and millennium, to a somewhat transcendent resolution. I doubt this is what Silverberg had in mind with his original, but Broderick's take is consistent nonetheless, and quite fascinating.

Locus, April 2017

The big novella this March-April Asimov's is plenty of fun, a wild kind of superscientific ride. This is “Tao Zero”, by Damien Broderick. Shipton Dow is the son of Robin Dow and Robyn Dow, who were brilliant young teenagers when he was conceived. They also were lottery winners, and they used their winnings to start an industry devoted to learning how to manipulate the Way (the Tao), and to further understand the nature of intelligence. As a similarly precocious young teenager, he is at MIT when he begins to fall for another brilliant teenager, Felicity. Then suddenly an attack on the MIT campus puts Ship in great danger, and he is saved by a mysterious entity who whisks him away through a tesseract … and Felicity too is swept up into this action, along with her grandfather and eventually Ship’s parents, not to mention Ship’s AI companion, Bandaid. This is wacky stuff, told in short sections headed by quotations from the Tao Te Ching, clever, often funny, kind of sweet, kind of convoluted. In the end in a curious way I thought it a bit small-scale relative to the really grand implications of the super science described – though I’m not sure that’s a weakness or a reflection of the nature of the Tao.

Birthday Review: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born 22 April 1899 (though it was April 10th in Russia at that time.) In his memory, then, here's what I wrote about his memoir, Speak, Memory, on my SFF Net newsgroup long ago.

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my long time favorite writers. I'm not sure how I discovered him -- I suspect it was because Ada used to get cited as a "science fiction novel by a real famous writer". Anyway, as a teen I read a whole bunch of his short stories, mostly the emigré work collected in three volumes back in the day (Tyrants Destroyed, etc.), and I read Ada, then Lolita. Some time later I returned to him and read his other major English novels -- Pnin and Pale Fire, my two favorites, and also The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Look at the Harlequins, and Transparent Things, plus a few of the emigre novels (originally written in Russian and later translated by Dmitri Nabokov): King Queen Knave, Invitation to a Beheading, Mary, The Defense. Outstanding work -- he's an amazing writer. (And clearly should have gotten a Nobel -- one assumes he didn't get one for political reasons.)

Speak, Memory is his autobiography. It was originally a series of pieces for the New Yorker, later assembled in about 1950 as Conclusive Evidence. It was revised twice, first for Russian translation, then again in 1965 or so as Speak, Memory, with the subtitle "An Autobiography, Revisited." It covers his life from birth to about 1940, which is to say his "Russian" life, before he moved to the US and began to write in English. Nabokov came from an aristocratic family in the St. Petersburg area. His father, however, was a noted liberal, even spending time in prison for writing articles critical of the Czar. (He later became part of Kerenski's government, and after emigrating to Berlin was assassinated in 1922.) Nabokov was born in 1899. He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The book spends quite some time covering his rather idyllic childhood, including descriptions of a series of governesses and tutors, of trips to resorts in Europe, of his early and lifelong fascination with butterflies. (Besides being a brilliant writer he was an entomologist of minor note.) There are long sections about his ancestry -- his father's life, his uncle's, his mother's. He only briefly treats his siblings -- in particular, his immediate younger brother, Sergei, he confesses to find very hard to write about. (It seems that Sergei was homosexual, though Nabokov never says so directly, but hints at it, and Nabokov seems to feel some shame at not reacting very well to this discovery.) Sergei ended up dying in a German concentration camp -- to which he was sent at least in part for his homosexuality. (Also for speaking out against the German regime.)

After the Revolution, the Nabokovs escaped to Europe, living variously in Berlin, Paris, and Prague. Vladimir took a degree at Cambridge as well. He also began writing, usually under the name Sirin. In Speak, Memory he speaks of the emigre writing scene, but does not directly mention much about his own efforts -- except that he does say, after describing several significant writers, that he always took the greatest interest in one "Sirin". Interestingly, Nabokov writes essentially nothing about his wife in the book -- though he does address much of it to her. He describes two love affairs -- one childhood infatuation (aged ten or so) with a French girl while spending a summer at the beach, and then his first extended teenaged affair, aged 16 or so, with a girl named Tamara. But there is nothing about his later love life. (I read later that he had an affair in the '30s -- I am sure he was chary of writing about this, either from his own embarrassment or to spare Vera.)

It's a beautifully written book, as one might expect. I found the first few chapters a bit slow -- the genealogy stuff, for example, didn't really involve me. But it gains momentum, and by the end is quite fascinating. And throughout, just gorgeuous as to the prose.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Peter S. Beagle

Today is Peter S. Beagle's 80th birthday. I've a huge fan of his for years, but less than I should have been -- I bought copies of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place back in the mid-'70s but for hard to figure reasons I didn't really read Beagle until the 21st century -- and then I realized what I'd been missing! Happily, though, my time at Locus has corresponded with a really impressive late career run of short fiction from Beagle.

I have met Peter Beagle once or twice -- certainly at Archon a few years ago, and I was able to ask him about Robert Nathan. I'd noticed a distinct kinship in tone (and, perhaps, setting) between A Fine and Private Place and One More Spring ... and Beagle was happy to call Nathan a writer he really admired.

Anyway, here are my reviews, mostly from Locus, of much of Beagle's lovely recent stories:

Locus, May 2004

Closing the May F&SF is Peter S. Beagle's "Quarry". This is as good an adventure fantasy story as I've seen in some time. The narrator is a young man, fleeing an unspecified horrible fate in "that place", pursued by supernatural "Hunters". He meets up with a cynical old man fleeing from a different sort of monster. The two make an alliance of convenience, but the old man has another plan in mind, involving yet another monster. This is a lively, amusing, imaginative, and exciting tale.

Locus, October 2005

It’s Double Issue Time – both Asimov’s and F&SF publish special issues dated October/November. Let’s begin with F&SF. The cover story is “Two Hearts”, by Peter S. Beagle, a sequel to his beloved novel The Last Unicorn. We are told that this story is the bridge to a new novel expected soon. It will certainly do in the mean time. It’s the story of a young girl who decides to accost her King after her village has been ravaged by a griffin. The King is one of the heroes of The Last Unicorn, much aged, and the young girl also meets Schmendrick and Molly Gloss on her journey. The story does read like a bridge to a new story, but an effective and moving bridge.

Locus, June 2006

The third issue of Fantasy Magazine (to which I contribute short reviews) has appeared, headlined by an absolutely wonderful new novelette from Peter Beagle, “Salt Wine”. It’s told by an old sailor, whose voice Beagle captures perfectly. The sailor had a friend, who one day saves a merrow (or merman) from a shark. The merrow gives him a treasure: the recipe for salt wine. Salt wine turns out to be a fabulous drink, and the friend enlists our narrator to help him market this, with at first great success. But there is a dark side, a very surprising one, and the realization of this aspect gives the story a strong moral dimension, turning an absorbing sea story into something darker, something quite beautiful and also heartbreaking. I’d say this was the story of the year if I hadn’t already nominated M. Rickert’s “Journey Into the Kingdom” – but who says we can’t have two stories of the year?

Locus, October 2006

Always welcome is a new Peter Beagle story, and “El Regalo” (F&SF, October-November) certainly satisfies, if it can’t quite be ranked among his very best stories. It’s a tale of a girl with a younger brother who is a witch. Her brother is of course a pest, and when he gets himself in trouble, she reluctantly (or not so much!) must rescue him. The resolution is satisfying enough, but details nagged me – for example, the girl should clearly be in high school as described, but her age is given as 12.

Review of The Line Between, early 2007, for Fantasy Magazine

(I'm not sure this ever appeared in Fantasy, but I believe I wrote it for them.)

The Line Between, by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon, 1-892391-36-8, $14.95, 232pp, tpb) 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Peter S. Beagle has had a long career and is already a legend for such novels as The Last Unicorn and such short fiction as “Farrell and Lila the Werewolf”. But just in the past few years he has produced a string of wonderful shorter works that rank with the best work of his career. This collection includes most of those recent stories, including a few new to 2006, as well as one or two older pieces. Beagle’s characters are the heart of his works – thoroughly believable, often a bit battered, often somewhat worldy wise. Though he also depicts much younger characters very well.

The very moving closing story, “A Dance for Emilia”, tells of a late-middle-aged actor mourning the death of his childhood friend, a critic, in the company of that friend’s young lover, and of his strangely possessed cat. “Two Hearts” is a lovely sequel to The Last Unicorn. “Quarry” is first rate adventure fantasy, with a young man fleeing scary monsters meeting an older man and joining with him, only to face another monster. “Salt Wine”, one of my favorites here (though the stories are wonderful throughout – hard to name a favorite) is an absorbing sea story about a sailor and the formula for a special drink he gets from a merman (or merrow), with a sharply pointed moral dimension. “Mr. Sigerson” is a satisfyingly different Sherlock Holmes story, featuring Holmes under the title alias spending time playing violin for a backwoods Central European orchestra – only mysteries to solve find him there as well. “El Regalo” and “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” are both focused a bit on younger readers – but quite fine for adults – the first about a young Korean-American boy who is a witch, and his long-suffering sister, the second about a mouse who wants to be a cat. We also get “Four Fables”, three of them brand new, mostly cynical (though with heart) short pieces about such subjects as a Tyrannosaurus told of the coming asteroid.

What more can I say? There are simply delightful stories – a lovely lovely collection from one of the best contemporary fantasists.

Locus, October 2007

Peter Beagle’s “We Never Talk About My Brother”, from the July Intergalactic Medicine Show, is another strong story from this wonderful writer. Jacob and Esau are brothers. (With those names, could they be anything but?) Esau has a sinister power – he can change the near past, and he uses this power to arrange his world has he wants, beginning with making it so that a neighborhood bully has already died. He goes on to a successful career as a network anchor – and what might such a man do with such power? But it turns out Jake has some abilities of his own, which are slowly revealed as he describes a visit Esau makes home to film a TV special. In the end we see that some people rend and some mend.

Locus, June 2008

Peter S. Beagle’s new chapbook, Strange Birds, features three stories based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. “King Pelles the Sure” tells of a small and peaceful kingdom whose ruler longs for a small war – only to find, tragically, that war is not so easy to control. At first a bit schematic, the story becomes profoundly moving at the end, after the King and his Grand Vizier, consumed with guilt, flee their conquered palace and find haven at a remote farm. When the ravages of war reach even there, the now ex-King tries to find redemption. “Spook” is less serious, a trifle really, but quite enjoyable, featuring Beagle’s recurring character Farrell battling a ghost haunting his and his lover’s new studio. The longest story is “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, and it too, after a slowish start, builds to a powerful conclusion. A boy in the middle of the last century hangs out at his Uncle Chaim’s studio, watching the old man paint. So he witnesses the arrival of an angel, who commands that she become Chaim’s muse. The angel is not to be gainsaid, and Chaim soon paints only her, but becomes obsessed, so his wife Rifke eventually is compelled to intervene, leading to the revelation of the angel’s secret … a terribly sad secret, resolved quite beautifully here.

Locus, August 2008

The latest SFBC anthology of original novellas is Marvin Kaye’s A Book of Wizards. The prize story here is Peter S. Beagle’s “What Tune the Enchantress Plays”, about the daughter of a sorceress who is a powerful enchantress herself, and what happens when her mother reminds her that the boy she loves is not of her sort, and so their children won’t be magicians. The story is at once sweet and wise and a bit bitter in its revelation of family stresses.

Locus, September 2008

Intergalactic Medicine Show for July has another fine new story from Peter Beagle. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is a Japanese-set fantasy. A commoner named Junko has attained some status in the household of a samurai, Lord Kuroda, because of his prowess as a hunter. But as a commoner his future is limited. One day he saves an otter who he has accidentally shot – and of course the otter turns out to be a beautiful shapechanging woman, Sayuri. The two marry, and before long Sayuri is scheming for Junko’s advancement – at first a good thing, but the story turns on the dangers of too much ambition. Beagle never fails to engross and also to center his stories on a true moral point without moralizing.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Of the fantasies here, best probably is the remarkable Peter S. Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, set just after the Second World War, concerning a boy studying Hebrew with a Rabbi fascinated by, among other things, old magazine covers, in particular a certain mysterious photographer’s model. The two try to uncover her identity, and learn something quite moving. Nancy Kress’s “Elevator” is a sort of existentialist fantasy about critical junctures in the lives of people trapped on an elevator.

Locus, May 2009

You can’t turn around these days without seeing another Peter S. Beagle story – and that’s a good thing! His range is further demonstrated with “Vanishing”, in March’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which tells of an old man, trying in vain to mend his relationship with his pregnant daughter, who is suddenly snatched away to a mysterious reenactment of his time as an American soldier monitoring the Berlin Wall, particularly his witness of a woman trying to escape East Berlin who is shot down by the Russian guards. The story moving examines the effect of these events on the old man, on a younger man with a very personal connection to the escapee, and on the Russian guard who was forced to shoot the woman. Responsibility, and parenthood, and how they interact, all collide. Beagle also has a new collection, We Never Talk About My Brother, with some strong new stories among a group of very recent reprints – I particularly liked “By Moonlight”, in which a highwayman in Shakespearean England happens upon an old clergyman who tells him a strange, sad, story of his love for the Queen of Faery.

Locus, April 2010

Full Moon City is an urban fantasy anthology about werewolves, which on the face of it is a pretty tired theme, these days. But it has a heck of a list of contributors, and it rises well above the average urban fantasy anthology. ... More straight-faced is “La Lune T’Attend”, by Peter S. Beagle, about a pair of loup garoux from “Sout’ Louisiana”, a black man and a white man, now well into their 60s. Decades past they had to deal with another werewolf, less bound by morality than they are, but to their horror they learn that he has returned, and is threatening their family. So they must confront him again, aching knees and all. The Cajun and Creole voices, the evocation of a New Orleans family, are beautifully done, and the story is as ever with Beagle grounded and touching.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

And finally Peter S. Beagle’s “Dirae” is perhaps as ambitious a story as any here, but somehow it never quite connected with me. It’s about a woman compelled to appear suddenly to rescue, almost superhero fashion, victims of injustice, and her search for a solid identity.  Again, I can only say it didn’t quite catch fire.

Locus, August 2010

Peter S. Beagle’s “Return” (Subterranean, Spring) is a new Innkeeper’s World story. Soukyan is a bodyguard, but ever wary of the Hunters, who search for him in pairs, and will never stop until he is killed. As the story opens, he is again found by a pair of Hunters, and again bests them – but a surprising aspect of their attack leads him to very reluctantly return to what he calls “that place” – the “monastery” from which he escaped, and from whence come the Hunters to punish him for that betrayal. And his return forces him to confront what he knew in his deepest self about the nature and weaknesses of “that place”. Beagle remains an incomparable.

Locus, August 2011

Peter S. Beagle’s “The Way It Works Out and All” (F&SF, July-August) is a quite a different thing – it’s an hommage, a love letter almost, to Avram Davidson, with the author depicting a series of strange postcards from Davidson (entirely plausible seeming as to the prose!) from implausibly widely separated places, then a meeting in which Davidson shows Beagle the rather scary way he has learned to get around. I can’t say for sure if you need to already be a fan of both writers to like this story – but I am, and I did.

Locus, February 2017

Tor.com in December features a new Peter S. Beagle piece, “The Story of Kao Yu”. The title character is a traveling judge in old China, very respected, and known for, in very serious cases, submitted the judgment to the Chinese unicorn, or Chi-Lin. But, the story seems to suggest, all men have weaknesses, and for an aging and lonely man, that weakness may well be manipulated by a beautiful young woman. And so with Kao Yu, who lets himself be bamboozled by the lovely Snow Ermine (if that was really her name), and defends her from the warnings of his loyal servants, and even, in the end, from the judgment of the Chi Lin. What happens doesn’t matter here so much as the warm telling, and the nicely depicted characters, major and minor.

Birthday Review: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle, SFWA Grand Master, turns 80 today. He became a favorite writer of mine much later than he should have -- about 15 years ago I realized what I'd been missing. Here's my review from back then of perhaps his most famous novel, The Last Unicorn. (It was originally posted at my newsgroup on SFF.Net.)

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

a review by Rich Horton

One of my longterm guilty non-reads has been Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. I've owned the book for a long time -- indeed, since June of 1977, about when I graduated from high school. (At that time I was sufficiently anal to write my name and the date and the sequential number of the book (among those I had bought -- this was the 279th SF novel!) on the inside.) Somehow I never found time to read it, and I'm not at all sure why. Probably it was reading "Two Hearts", a sequel, last year in F&SF that finally prompted me to dig up my copy.

And my gosh, I'm glad I did. It's a remarkable, beautiful, book. The prose is lovely, the story very moving, the characters involving -- the plot, well, probably just OK but that's not at all the point.

The story is about, no surprise, the last unicorn in the world. As the story opens she is brought to a vague realization that there are no other unicorns anymore, as far as anyone knows. She ends up deciding to search for her fellows, and soon gathers that they were taken away by the agency of the nasty King Haggard, and his mysterious creature the Red Bull. She is captured by a witch running a traveling animal exhibit, but she escapes with the help of a rather incompetent magician named Schmendrick. Schmendrick is tormented by his inability to control his magic in any way, and usually his inability to do any real magic. The two begin to follow Haggard's trail, but Shmendrick is captured by the outlaw Captain Cully, who imagines himself Robin Hood but doesn't quite manage it. Shmendrick escapes, of course, accompanied now also by Molly Grue, a rather faded and beaten down version of Maid Marian who had been cooking for Cully's band for years. And the three make their way to Haggard's strange castle, and to the neighboring town, cursed by prosperity.

At the castle the unicorn encounters the Red Bull, and is unable to deal with it -- and Shmendrick saves her, but by the terrible means of making her a human woman. Admitted to Haggard's haggard castle, they meet his amiable son, and of course the son falls for the unicorn in her womanly form. And eventually she begins to fall for him, once he understands that what she wants is not heroic quests and the heads of dragons and ogres. The shape of the story is clear, and the only resolution -- for Haggard to be deposed and the unicorns freed the Red Bull must be vanquished, and that vanquishing will require a certain sacrifice.

As I said, it's quite wonderful. In particular the first few chapters are astonishingly beautiful: some of the most intense prose I've ever read -- yet always undercut by odd humor and something akin to cynicism but not quite that. These abrupt shifts in tone work startlingly well. Beagle can't really maintain that level, though he reaches such heights again when needed, particularly at the climax. It's one of the field's treasures, no doubt, and I'm glad I finally read it.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Tom Purdom

Today is Tom Purdom's 83rd birthday, and what better time for a compilation of my reviews of stories from his exceptional late career outpouring.

Locus, June 2003

The two longest stories in the June Asimov's, Tom Purdom's "The Path of the Transgressor" and John Varley's "The Bellman", both feature riveting chase scenes, with their respective protagonists coming within a whisker of death. And they embed these chase scenes in unambiguously SFnal settings, and they use the SFnal nature of the settings to drive the stories, rather than as simply window-dressing or local color. I would hope these stories would satisfy most any adventure-starved reader. ... Even better is "The Path of the Transgressor". Davin Sam is a researcher on another planet, studying the habits of some unusual alien social animals. His wife Lizera is a former "geisha" -- genetically engineered to be predisposed toward pleasing her customers -- and now Davin is her "customer". They face considerable prejudice, which comes to a head when some of the alien animals alter their habits and attack the couple. When Lizera is injured it becomes clear that Davin could save himself by abandoning her. Shockingly, this is exactly what the bigots expect. The action sequences, as the two struggle for survival, are very well done, but the meat of the story is the exploration of the nature of their relationship, and the social context of it, which leads to a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion. This is one of the best stories to date in 2003.

Locus, February 2004

DAW's "monthly magazine" of themed anthologies offers a reliable if seldom exciting source of new SF and Fantasy. 2003 closes with Mike Resnick's New Voices in Science Fiction: 20 short stories by new writers (variably defined: from complete unknowns like Paul Crilley to well-established writers like Kage Baker and Susan R. Mathews). For the most part the stories seem more promising than outstanding. My favorite story here is "Palace Resolution" by Tom Purdom, about a civil war between rival factions in an asteroid habitat over the way to deal with an alien probe.

Locus, March 2004

Tom Purdom's latest story of a future Casanova (prosaically named Joe) is "Romance for Augmented Trio" (Asimov's, February). The protagonist, as in several previous stories, is engaged in an affair with a younger and thus (due to improvements in the human genome) much more intelligent woman, this time named Ganmei. They are journeying to the Kuiper Belt where they are attacked by a mentally unbalanced man, and Joe and Ganmei must use their different talents to try to outwit this psychotic individual, and his AI augmentations.

Guest Review of October-November 2005 Asimov's for Tangent Online

Tom Purdom’s “Bank Run” is my favorite story of this double issue. It appears to be set in the same future as his excellent story “The Path of the Transgressor”. Like that story it features a man on another planet with a genetically-engineered female companion – a woman tailored not only to delight him but also to be loyal to him. The protagonist, Sabor, is one of the leading bankers on the planet Fernheim. This planet has a rather anarchistic social setup, with a few bankers, a number of “Possessors” (major landowners, I suppose), some providers of such services as mercenaries, and presumably a large underclass of genetically-engineered servants: guards, concubines, and everything in between, one assumes. And no particular laws, just social pressure and financial pressure.

Sabor has just refused a loan to Possessor Kenzan Khan, partly on the grounds of the man’s irresponsibility. Khan responds by engaging a mercenary force to try to kidnap Sabor. Sabor’s defense strategy is a combination of flight, physical resistance, and financial negotiations with other banks, with Khan’s rivals, and with the mercenaries. The financial and small-scale political negotiations may sound dry – but I didn’t find them so at all. The story examines the ways in which financial pressure, and self-interest based both on financial opportunity and concern for one’s reputation, might substitute for laws. But this is no libertarian tract – the entire setup raises questions about its feasibility and stability, and does not insist on answers. Behind everything there are lurking questions about Sabor’s own character, and particularly the rather unpleasant implied economy of this future, with what seems to be essentially slavery a main aspect. Finally, much of the emotional center of the story (as with “The Path of the Transgressor”) concerns the question of relationships with people engineered to love you, and engineered for you to desire – how “real” are the feelings on either side of such a relationship?

Locus, October 2005

Best from the Asimov’s Double Issue is “Bank Run”, by Tom Purdom. This story appears to be set in the same future as his excellent story “The Path of the Transgressor”, and like that story it features a man on another planet with a genetically-engineered female companion – a woman tailored not only to delight him but also to be loyal to him. This is a disquieting background note in a story that in the foreground is a clever adventure story, featuring both futuristic technology and futuristic financial manipulation. Sabor is one of the leading bankers on the planet Fernheim. He has just refused a loan to Possessor Kenzan Khan, partly on the grounds of the man’s irresponsibility. Khan’s response is to engage a mercenary force and attack Sabor. The defense strategy is a combination of flight, physical resistance, and financial negotiations with other banks, with Khan’s rivals, and with the mercenaries. It’s not dry in the least – rather, I was in the edge of my seat. And behind everything lurk questions about Sabor’s character, about the rather unpleasant implied economy of this future, with what seems to be essentially slavery a main aspect, and about the emotional aspects of relationships with people engineered to love you, and engineered for you to desire.

Locus, February 2008

Tom Purdom is one of my favorites, and he does not disappoint with “Sepoy Fidelities” (Asimov's, March), about two people who have been given beautiful and strong new bodies by the Earth’s alien rulers. They fall in love, but their new bodies come at a price – their first loyalty is to their job.

Locus, July 2010

In the July Asimov’s Tom Purdom, is in fine form in “Haggle Chips”, which once again examines the collision of economic manipulation and emotional manipulation. A man selling valuable eyes to a powerful woman is kidnapped by an opponent of the woman – he becomes, straightforwardly, a pawn in a power game. Then he falls in love with an associate of his kidnapper – but was she mentally altered to fall for him? And does that matter?

Locus, December 2010

Also in the December Asimov's, I enjoyed  Tom Purdom’s “Warfriends”, a sequel to his mid-60s Ace Double The Tree Lord of Imeten, concerning the balky attempts of a couple of very different species to cooperate.

Locus, April 2011

Tom Purdom’s “A Response from EST17” (Asimov's, April-May) is intelligent science fiction about rival expeditions to a distant planet, and particularly the response of the intelligent natives to the human explorers. It turns out such expeditions are common in interstellar history, and there is a way to deal with them. Purdom offers an interesting explanation for the Fermi Paradox, and a nice way out of it.

Locus, March 2012

In the March Asimov’s I quite enjoyed the cover story, “Golva’s Ascent”, by Tom Purdom. This is another of his Imeten stories (the first of which was the 1966 Ace Double The Tree Lord of Imeten, the second of which was the 2010 Asimov’s story “Warfriends”), set on a heavily forested planet occupied by two species: a tree-dwelling and tool-using people, and a ground dwelling species with considerable linguistic facility but no hands so no tools. This story concerns Golva, a highly intelligent itiji (one of the ground-dwellers), if a bit of a social misfit in his milieu (he is portrayed almost as if he has Asperger’s), who daringly sets out on a journey up the plateau where the small group of humans live. Once there he is captured and studied by a sympathetic researcher – but it turns out the humans are dominated by a rather sadistic leader, and Golva finds himself needing to escape with the help of the researcher. The action is exciting, and the depiction of an alien species is well done.

Locus, September 2013

Tom Purdom's “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” (Asimov's, September) makes nice use of a familiar central idea: a character who can temporarily switch minds with other people. He uses it for somewhat small time crime – identity theft, basically. And then he wonders how this might affect one particular victim, a young woman … Things resolve, not quite cynically, but realistically, as no great romance is involved, and indeed the characters are not unlikeable exactly but no heroes either. Solid work.

Locus, September 2014

In the September Asimov's Tom Purdom brings to a close (it would seems) his latest sequence of stories, these set on Imeten, a planet he first visited in a 1966 Ace Double, The Tree Lord of Imeten. In this story, “Bogdavi's Dream”, an alliance between some members of the tree people of Imeten, others of the ground dwelling itiji, and a few humans exiled from the human colony mount an attack on the colony, hoping to depose the brutal usurper leading the colony and free the rest of the humans. It doesn't have quite the Sfnal zip of the previous entries – as fairly often with later stories in a series, the inventions and revelations are in the past, and what's left is resolution. That said it's an enjoyable adventure story, with nice battle scenes, and well-drawn characters from all three species, and making good use of the situation already established, particularly the characteristics of the two native intelligent species, in coming to a satisfying conclusion.