Friday, May 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alec Nevala-Lee

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

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

Locus, June 2011

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

Locus, November 2011

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

Locus, February 2012

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

Locus, August 2012

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

Locus, August 2013

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

Locus, April 2014

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

Locus, October 2015

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

Locus, February 2017

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

Locus, May 2018

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

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

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

a review by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

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

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

Needle

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

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

Iceworld

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

Astounding, July 1946

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

If, May 1963

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

Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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

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

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

Locus, July 2002

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

Locus, November 2002

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

Locus, February 2004

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

Locus, October 2005

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

Locus, January 2008

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

Locus, September 2010

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

Mars Crossing, by Geoffrey Landis

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Posse of Princesses, by Sherwood Smith

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

A review by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

Senrid, by Sherwood Smith

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

a review by Rich Horton

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

Locus, December 2005

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

Locus, April 2007

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

Firebirds review (Locus, April 2007)

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

Lace and Blade review (Fantasy Magazine)

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Matthew Hughes

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

Locus, March 2004

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

Locus, June 2004

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

Locus, August 2004

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

Locus, October 2004

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

Locus, February 2005

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

Locus, June 2005

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

Locus, April 2005

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

Locus, August 2005

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

Locus, July 2006

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

Locus, March 2007

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

Locus, June 2007

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

Locus, December 2009

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

Locus, May 2017

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

Birthday Review: Stories of Nina Allan

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

Locus, June 2008

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

Locus, August 2009

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

Locus, July 2010

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

Locus, November 2010

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

Locus, January 2011

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

Locus, June 2011

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

Locus, October 2012

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

Locus, October 2016

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

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

Locus, March 2017

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

Locus, August 2017

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Birthday Review: Threshold Shift, by Eric Brown

Today is Eric Brown's birthday -- he becomes another writer who just caught up with me in age again, at 59. For his birthday, I've reposted my review of his collection Threshold Shift, from the October 2006 Locus, and I've appended a couple more reviews of short work by him.

Threshold Shift, by Eric Brown (Golden Gryphon, 1-930846-43-6, $24.95, 218pp, hd) September 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

When considering single author collections, the “theme” is not so much the concern. Often, indeed, one wants the opposite: a representation of the writer’s range. Especially with an author’s first American collection. This book does a good job representing Eric Brown’s range: it depicts him doing what he does best very well. And what he does best is colorful, unabashedly story-centered, rather old-fashioned in settings and plots, but if old-fashioned on the outside still quite thought-provoking on the “inside”.

Brown has been a very prolific writer of short fiction over the past 20 years or so, but he is not very well-known in the U. S. The great bulk of his stories have appeared in British magazines: mainly Interzone, but also Spectrum SF, Postscripts, and others. (He was also a regular in the US magazine Science Fiction Age before its unfortunate death.) He has twice won the British Science Fiction Award. This fine collection will hopefully introduce him to a new set of readers: it is his first to appear in the US (he has had two earlier British collections).

I’ve long enjoyed the best of Brown’s stories, while finding him a bit uneven. Threshold Shift is a strong selection, featuring his two BSFA winners. One story, BSFA winner “Hunting the Slarque”, is from an extended series documenting the last years of the planet Tartarus, whose sun is about to go nova. I thought the series a bit repetitive, but selecting one story avoids that problem. “Hunting the Slarque” is Brown at his most, well, lurid, but still satisfying, about a Hunter hired to track down the two surviving legendary Slarque, creatures native to Tartarus, creatures who (along with some humans) wish to stay on Tartarus and perish with the planet.

Three stories come from a long series of stories, collectively my favorites among Brown’s work, concerning the alien Kéthani, and their gift to humanity: immortality. Brown’s usual concern with the stories is the ethics of immortality, as opposed to the Kéthani themselves. For example, “Thursday’s Child” very movingly considers a couple with opposing views: the husband is in favor of accepting the Kéthani offer, and indeed he works in “collection”: picking up the dead and sending them via Onward Station to the Kéthani planet for resurrection. But the wife is opposed, and she has resisted allowing their daughter to be implanted with the chip that allows resurrection. But then the daughter becomes ill … In “The Kéthani Inheritance”, it is the man of a couple (in this case a new couple) who resists implantation, partly because he’s not sure bad people should live forever. But his new lover doesn’t want to lose him, and when both lose their parents, their perspective is altered. The other Kéthani story is a bit different. “The Touch of Angels” is the only original in this book, a murder mystery which ends up giving us a bit more insight into Kéthani motives than previous stories. 

Other highlights include the other BSFA winner, “The Children of Winter”, a colorful romantic story of an alien planet with multiple races, including of course the mysterious humans; and a collaboration with Stephen Baxter, “The Spacetime Pit”, which reminded me of an old Algis Budrys story, “The War is Over”, as it told of a woman crashed on a primitive planet, and her long wait for the inhabitants to develop the capability to save her.

The rest of the collection is also entertaining. Eric Brown is a so far underappreciated writer – perhaps because he’s not really flashy and new, perhaps because his lesser works are sometimes disappointing. But he does what he does best very well, and work like that showcased here is very fun – and also thematically engaging.

From my summary of Spectrum SF for 2000

The two novellas published this year were "Destiny on Tartarus" by Eric Brown and "Great Wall of Mars" by Alastair Reynolds.  Both are colourful and exciting, well worth reading, but not quite Hugo material.  The Brown story is the first (in internal chronology) of his Tartarus stories, about the planet of a Sun which is about to go nova.  This story is set a century before the nova, so it's not about the impending nova like the other stories, which I think may be why I liked it the best of all the Tartarus stories.  (For one thing, it avoided repeating the same plot elements and thematic elements that several other stories had.)

Locus, July 2006

Cemetery Dance remains perhaps the most reliable source of well-written contemporary horror. In #54 I was taken with a clever story from Eric Brown, “The Man Who Never Read Novels”, in which a horror novelist meets a man on a train who confesses to not reading contemporary novels – for an interesting reason. Of course the writer is compelled to press his new manuscript on him … with amusingly mordant results.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Lesser-Known Philip K. Dick Novel: Time Out of Joint

Time Out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick

a review by Rich Horton

No Philip K. Dick novel can be called "forgotten", but it seems to me that this novel has become less known than it deserves, because I think it's one of his best novels, and probably his very best novel prior to The Man in the High Castle. Here's what I wrote about it some time ago, a fairly brief look at the book..

One of Philip Dick's more noted early novels is Time Out of Joint, from 1959. This was originally published in hardcover by Lippincott -- perhaps Dick's first appearance between boards. Lippincott was at that time publishing the occasional SF book -- A Canticle for Leibowitz was another -- though carefully disguised. For instance, Time Out of Joint was not presented as SF, but as "A Novel of Menace".

The setting is what seems a first a slightly altered 1950s. The main character is Ragle Gumm, who makes his living solving a puzzle for a newspaper. Ragle lives with his sister and her husband. He carries on a somewhat unsatisfying affair with the rather immature wife of a not very pleasant neighbor. And he worries about his curious standing as the reigning puzzle-solving champion.

Slowly we realize that his world is somehow artificial. He (and his brother-in-law) uncover curious buried items, occasionally see strange things that seem to imply most everyone in the town is artificial, hear odd transmissions via crystal radio, and so on. One of the most symbolic findings is slips of paper with names of objects -- "the word is the thing", anyone? Most significant is when Ragle stumbles across newspapers and magazines from the future (1998 or so -- why is 40 years such a  common SF near future?)

The general outline of what's going on with Ragle and his family should be relatively clear -- I'll leave the specific solution and the motivations for readers to discover. The basic idea is, then, familiar enough -- redolent of Daniel Galouye's slightly later novel Simulacron-3, just to name one. What makes the book stand out is for one thing the way Dick uses the 50s setting to comment, as if from the future, on the 1950s (and to do so with an aspect of nostalgia that almost makes the book seem as if written in 1998), also the portrayal of the characters, and finally a certain charged feeling of strangeness -- very much a central feature of much of Dick's work -- that gives the idea of inhabiting an artificial world -- "word as thing" or "signifier as object" if you will -- real psychological immediacy.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Adam-Troy Castro

Today Adam-Troy Castro once again is as old as I am. Every October I inch ahead of him, but every May he catches up again -- I just can't shake him! Anyway, he's one of the SF's finest storytellers, and a writer intimately concerned with moral questions, always wrapped in story. He also has exceptional range, of both tone (he can be silly funny and sharply funny and tragic and coolly logical) and genre (he's arguably more at home with horror than anything else, but he also writes fantasy, and SF (sometimes hard SF), and YA fiction, and mysteries, and exceptional pop culture exegesis, and more. So here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his short work.

Locus, July 2002

Analog's yearly July/August double issue is out. Adam-Troy Castro's "Unseen Demons", a related story to his earlier Nebula nominee "The Funeral March of the Marionettes", is long and intriguing but also a bit frustrating. Andrea Cort has been brought to the planet Catarkhus to determine what to do with a human who has brutally dismembered several members of the indigenous species. The problem is, settled law demands that he be tried under the indigenes' laws, and nobody has been able to communicate with the Catarkhans.  This is a political issue because humans have a reputation for violence, and the other alien species on Catarkhus seem convinced that the humans are going to try to let the criminal get away unscathed.  The problem is further complicated by the Catarkhan nature: they are almost unaware of their surroundings, and indeed the victims may well not have even known they were being murdered.

So we have a setup for a nice Analog-style problem story, interesting enough though as usual the alien species seems a bit too specifically created to set up the problem.  The other interesting part of the story emerges slowly, and it involves Andrea Cort's personal history, which, too coincidentally for my taste, also involves brutal murder of aliens.  The solution was somewhat disappointing – basically, the central problem is pretty stupid, and the solution is common sense. Other aspects of the problem were solved nicely though – such as establishing at least a very rudimentary communication with the aliens.

From my review of Imaginings, Locus, October 2003

Two stories struck me as particularly good.  First, Adam-Troy Castro, a writer who is always a threat to do something really good. "Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" seems to me among his best few stories.  A man escapes his boring job to an exotic and romantic destination, and once their meets a sexy and willing woman who only enhances his enjoyment. But there's a catch -- visitors must stay the full duration, and the tenth day is given over to horrible experiences of war and suffering.  Is it worth it?  This is a sort of "Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" variant, with a twist to be sure, and Castro does an excellent job portraying both the idyllic and horrific aspects of this experience, and of asking but not answering his central question.

Locus, April 2009

So far the two remaining monthly (or almost) magazines forge on. Analog’s April issue’s lead novella, Adam-Troy Castro’s “Gunfight on Farside”, is the “real story” of the only Lunar gun battle, reluctantly told by the aging survivor of that battle to a persistent … well, why she’s so persistent is a cute secret of the story. Analogies with Wyatt Earp suggest that the legend has outpaced the facts – except that the “real” facts turn out to be even stranger than the legend. To be sure, as readers of the linked story “Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s” will remember, these “facts” are fantastical, despite Analog’s hard SF reputation.

Locus, September 2010

Lightspeed in its third issue features two original stories distinguished by the originality of their ideas, and by some distinctiveness in the telling. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Arvies” has a truly striking central idea. Arvies are human bodies grown to be hosts for unborn humans in the far future, who live for centuries serially riding and wearing out host bodies. This story in particular focuses on one such “human” and her latest arvie, and her perverse decision to bear a child in this latest body. Castro tells the story quite straight-facedly, and the horror but plausibility of the central idea is thus well depicted. Full marks for that – alas, the very effectiveness of the dry depiction of the morals of that future also, to me, made the story a bit hard to like, as opposed to respect.

Locus, October 2012

Adam-Troy Castro's “My Wife Hates Time Travel” (Lightspeed, September) is very sweet, about a couple that learns that one or the other of them is fated to invent time travel, and the logical consequences of such an invention. Castro cleverly ramifies these consequences and paradoxes … and also makes the story a love letter to the wife of the title.

Locus, February 2014

The best stories at Lightspeed for January are very odd pieces. Adam-Troy Castro's “The Thing About Shapes to Come” is easily enough described – it's about a girl who gives birth to a cube, amid a rash of births of geometric figures – it's Castro's deadpan description of the child (called, of course, Di) and of the working out of the whole situation that makes the story strangely effective.

Locus, September 2016

Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Assassin’s Secret” (Lightspeed, August) is amusing as well, a slightly over the top tale of the world’s greatest assassin, who can kill with a stroke of his pen. Castro has a fair amount of fun describing his way of life, and his ways of death, but the center of the story is how the assassin deals with those who come asking for his services, and in particular the one secret he holds.

Locus, February 2018

One more issue from 2018, then a look at some of the later work from 2017. The January Lightspeed is full of fable-like pieces – even the SF, as Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Streets of Babel” is presented. It’s clever work, about a man living in the wilderness who is captured by a living city and made to endure the most dehumanizing aspects of city life for some months. Clever, as I said, with a distinct satirical point, though it didn’t quite sell me.

Locus, August 2017

Lightspeed for July includes a fine Chinese-flavored fable – or morality tale – from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Adam-Troy Castro (conspiring as ever to make me misplace the hyphens in one of their names!), “A Touch of Heart”. Dou Zhuo is a farmer whose land produces little, and he becomes envious of his more successful neighbor. Eventually he finds the means to hire an assassin of the notorious Black Touch, which endeavors to fulfill their contracts with the least possible effort. When Dou asks for his neighbor’s death, the assassin arranges to kill him, by removing one second from his life span. Dou is furious, but learns to make his requests more specific – and eventually learns what will satisfy him with the least effort expended.

Locus, January 2018

Adam-Troy Castro and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro give us another of their Chinese-flavored morality tales in the November 21st issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The Mouth of the Oyster” tells of a fortunate couple who fall victim to a terrible plague, that leaves the husband blind and his wife somewhat crippled. But their love is if anything intensified, and so is their commercial success. Then a magician offers his product – eyes that can restore sight to the husband – but only one facet of sight – he might ask for beauty, or the ability to see deceit, or anything he can think of. But will the effect of this special sight be an unmixed blessing?

Locus, March 2018

Analog opens 2018 with “Blurred Lives”, a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest in his stories of Draiken, formerly an operative employed in a number of interstellar conflicts. He had retired to an out of the way planet, trying to avoid the attention of his former employers, but was unsuccessful. Here he and one of his former enemies, Thorne, are joined in hunting the “puppet masters” who directed their operations, and who thus forced them into complicity in what they now see as crimes. Thorne’s escape over time has been pure escape – into a sensory deprivation box, and she remains more likely to simply want to forget, while Draiken is driven by a desire for something like justice. This leads them to Liberty, a cylinder world whose inhabitants live luxurious lives, but who are subject to random selection for “disposal” at the behest of the rulers, one of whom is the man Draiken and Thorne seek. And they find him – ready to die – and he offers Draiken a deal: enter one of the – call them “prisons” -- and escape, and Draiken can have what he wants (freedom for all the prisoners). But if he doesn’t escape, he stays there forever. This is the occasion for one of Castro’s specialties – particularly inventive horrors that humans can inflict on others, and I’ll leave the nature of that to the reader to discover, but it’s horrifying and morally awful. There is also a nicely put dilemma at the resolution. Strong stuff, with perhaps a hint of over-constructedness to the setup – but that’s in service of a worthwhile moral.

Locus, October 2018

I also liked Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Unnecessary Parts of the Story”, which cleverly deconstructs an all too familiar scenario: the Spaceship with the Captain and the Professorial Type and the Hot Girl and the Forgettable Guy etc. etc. as they deal with a horrible alien plague in mostly very stupid ways. Point of view is everything in this story, and that leads us down a path to a not quite expected conclusion.

Locus, February 2019

In the January-February Analog there is also a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest of his Draiken stories, “The Savannah Problem”. I was particularly struck by the structure here – the story seems all exposition, in a way, as Castro depicts Draiken’s pursuit, capture, and extraction of a gangster thug from a space station. All this is interesting – Castro is good at action and tactics – but it seems extended, as we wait and wait for his purpose in capturing this man. A risky tactic in a storyteller – but Castro pulls it off with a brilliant rapid thematically relevant conclusion.

Locus, March 2019

Speaking of “challenging”, the January/February F&SF, which is through and through a strong issue, has several stories that are borderline horror, with the horror turning on the question of personal responsibility. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Survey” is one of those stories told entirely in dialog, depicting a college student taking a survey, seemingly one of those psychology research projects, this one an “exploration of stress on the human animal”. The means of putting stress on the young woman in the story is quite horrifying (I leave it to the reader to learn it), and when it’s married with a certain ambiguous offer of a kind of power, the questions the story asks – about the nature of responsibility, I suppose – become even more queasy-making.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Answers: Science Fiction Planets

A couple of days ago I posted a quiz on the subject of Science Fiction Planets. I promised the answers, so here they are. (If you want to see the quiz first unspoiled, here it is.)


SPOILER SPACE








Quiz: Science Fiction Planets




1.  This image is based on a Star Wars prequel film, and portrays the capital city of the Empire, which is an "ecumenopolis," or planet-spanning city. Many people think that an inspiration for this city is the capitol city/planet of the Empire in Isaac Asimov's Foundation seriesName either planet/cityClick here .  

Coruscant, Trantor


2.  Pierre Boulle, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, also wrote a novel set on a planet of the star Betelgeuse, and it too spawned a successful movie (and eventually many more.) Name the first movie made from that book. (Note that the movie, unlike the novel, is revealed to be actually set on Earth in its famous final scene.)

Planet of the Apes


3.  Planets of this three-star system are understandably a common site for science fiction stories. Examples include Robert Silverberg's first book; the planet Rakhat in Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow; as well as the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar. This star system was also the original destination of the Robinson family before they became Lost in Space (in the '60s TV series.) Name this star system.

Alpha Centauri


4.  This planet with a mysterious worldwide intelligence is featured in films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, based on a novel by a Polish science fiction writer. Name both the planet (which has a name recalling our sun) and the author (whose name might recall our moon, or at least our lunar exploration).

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

5.  N. K. Jemisin made history when she won the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years running, for each volume of a trilogy. Most of the action is set on a continent called the Stillness. Per the title of the trilogy, on which planet is this continent located?

(Broken) Earth


6.  The late great Ursula Le Guin set much of her science fiction in a future sometimes called "Hainish". She won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the notably cold planet Gethen. What is the English name for that planet (supposedly also the translation of Gethen into English?) (That English nickname is also used in the title of a short story set on the planet.)

Winter


7.  Perhaps the most famous planet located outside our Solar System in TV is Vulcan. In which episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Theodore Sturgeon, did Spock's undergoing pon farr force the Enterprise to return to Vulcan.

Amok Time


8.  Samuel R. Delany gave one of his novels the subtitle "an ambiguous heterotopia". The novel's protagonist, Bron Helstrom, lives on a moon of the planet Neptune, though he was born on Mars and visits Earth during the novel. Name either the original title of the novel or Delany's preferred title.

Triton, Trouble on Triton


9.  A long series of novels beginning with Dune,by Frank Herbert, centers around control of which planet(also sometimes called Dune), the source of the spice mélange, which among other things is used to help navigate starships. If you don't remember the novel, you may remember David Lynch's film, or the SyFy Channel miniseries. (And, reportedly, Denis Villeneuve is working on a pair of films based on Dune.)

Arrakis


10.  Cixin Liu (or Liu Cixin), was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, not to mention gaining fans including Barack Obama. The novel in question concerns invaders from the planet Trisolaris, so-called because its system has three suns. What is the title of the novel, in its English translation, based on the difficulties caused by the complex orbit of Trisolaris due to those three suns (and also representing a system in Newtonian mechanics that is not amenable to a closed-form solution?)

The Three-Body Problem


11.  In recent years a great many extrasolar planets have been detected by various means, and science fiction writers are beginning to use those planets in their novels. Allen Steele has written a long series of novels set on a (as yet undetected!) moon of one of those extrasolar planets, 47 Ursae Majoris b. The planet is called Bear (for obvious reasons) – what is the trickier name of the moon which Steele's characters colonize?

Coyote


12.  While more famous for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis also wrote a trilogy about a man named Elwin Ransom, with books set primarily on Malacandra, Perelandra, and Thulcandra (the Silent Planet.) Give the usual English names for these planets (in the above order.) 

Mars, Venus, Earth




13. The planet Mesklin is noted for its unusual shape, which leads to a very strange gravity gradient. The novels set there were written by a high school science teacher named Harry Stubbs, who used this name as a pseudonym.

Hal Clement


14. On which planet is the title structure of Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel, Icehenge, found? (Well, at least it was a planet when the book was published!)

Pluto



15. Leigh Brackett wrote a number of stories and novels about this recurring character. Though he is most associated with Mars, his adventures also took him to Venus, and out of the Solar System to the planet Skaith, and he was actually born on Mercury. His last name might suggest the nature of the landscapes of, at least, Mars and Mercury. Who was this character?
Eric John Stark

Old Besteller: The Rose and the Ring, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Old Besteller: The Rose and the Ring, by William Makepeace Thackeray

a review by Rich Horton

I've previously written about Thackeray, in the context of his great novel Henry Esmond -- in my opinion one of the very best novels of the 19th Century. This time around I'm covering something much lighter -- the last of several "Christmas books" he wrote under the name M. A. Titmarsh, and generally the best regarded of those. These were more in the vein of entertainments appropriate for reading at the Christmas season than, necessarily, books that directly concerned Christmas. At any rate, I'll begin with the biographical snippet I wrote before.

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India in 1811 -- his father was a secretary for the British East India company. William came to England in 1815 after his father's death. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He spent the next several years more or less wasting his time -- some travel, some apparently desultory studies of law and art, failed attempts at starting two newspapers. His family had money, but Thackery lost some of it by his own efforts and more after a couple of Indian banks failed. So upon his marriage in 1836 he had to support his family, and he turned to writing. He wrote for various magazines (Fraser's and Punch among them), doing reviews, satirical sketches, and some travel writing. He published a couple of novels (Catherine and Barry Lyndon) before becoming famous with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1848. He and his wife had three daughter. One died in infancy. The eldest, Anna Isabella, became a well known novelist in her own right. The youngest married the famous critic Leslie Stephen. After the birth of their third child, Thackeray's wife succumbed to depression, and eventually had to be committed to an asylum. Thackeray died quite young, in 1863. (Indeed his wife, still insane, outlived him by over 30 years.)

The Rose and the Ring is the last of his "Christmas novels", published at Christmas, 1854. (The previous set, totalling five, I believe, dated to the 1840s.) It's a very short novel, something less than 40,000 words by my estimate. It's copiously illustrated, by Thackeray himself. My copy is the Wordsworth Classics edition.

It's a wholly satirical story, concerning the countries Paflagonia and Crim Tartary. The two countries have been at war often, but now are expecting a marriage between Angelica, the only daughter of the King of Paflagonia, and Bulbo, the son of the King of Crim Tartary. The complication is that both Kings are recent usurpers. In Paflagonia, the new King took over when his nephew Giglio was only an infant; while in Crim Tartary Duke Padella rebelled against the rightful (but not very good) King, and the toddler Princess Rosalba was thrown into the woods and eaten by lions. All this, it turns out, was the doing of the Fairy Blackstick, who, in the way of fairies, was offended by the royal families. But, we are told, Blackstick, who has noticed how bad all these royal people turn out, has decided that a bit of misfortune in the lives of the young children will be good for them.

So you can see what's going on -- the Princess Rosalba was not actually eaten by lions, but managed to wander into Paflagonia, where she became the much put upon maid to Princess Angelica. As for Prince Giglio, he has grown up, still rather spoiled, in the Palace, with the expectation of marrying his cousin and becoming King in the end anyway. But now that Angelica will marry Bulbo, his hopes are dashed. Which, in reality, after a bunch of events, means he'll notice the virtuous maid (now called Betsinda) of Angelica ...

The plot is driven to a great extent by more mischief from the Fairy Blackstick, in the form of a rose and a ring, each of with renders the bearer attractive to all who see them. Those work well enough that when Angelica and Bulbo have them, they are happy to be engaged to each other ... but as the objects move on to other people, complications ensue.

But no more about the plot. Suffice it to say that all works out well at the end (except for the people who end up killed!) But in the mean time there are amusing issues such as the King's Butler being turned into a doorknob, and his unpleasant wife, now the Countess Gruffanuff (Thackeray has lots of fun with names -- there's also a General Hedzoff) plots to marry Giglio. And Betsinda/Rosalba is thrust out of the palace again. Giglio himself end up in exile. There are orders to execute Giglio and (by mistake) Bulbo as well. And in the end inevitably war.

So, a fairly conventional fairy tale plot. The pleasure -- and there's a good deal of pleasure -- is in Thackeray's exaggeratedly satirical view of everything. The writing is very funny throughout. I noted the fun with names, but also the characters are depicted with a nasty joy. Certainly the pretensions of aristocracy are mocked, and indeed the foolishness of almost everyone. But it's mostly somewhat gentle under the surface (the story is nominally for children, after all). The drawing -- also by Thackeray as I note, are fun as well. This is a slight book, of course, but a fun one.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Quiz: Science Fiction Planets

Recently I wrote a quiz for a trivia site I am a member of. The subject was Science Fiction Planets. I prepared 15 questions -- only the first 12 were used, but I'll add the other three at the end. If anyone wants to email me their guesses at the answers (no cheating please!) I'll try to compile a list of who got the most right. (I expect a fair amount of 15s, actually!), and I'll publish the answers in a day or two. (email: rrhorton@prodigy.net)

Thanks to Steven Silver, by the way, who helped with some of the questions.

1.  This image is based on a Star Wars prequel film, and portrays the capital city of the Empire, which is an "ecumenopolis," or planet-spanning city. Many people think that an inspiration for this city is the capitol city/planet of the Empire in Isaac Asimov's Foundation seriesName either planet/cityClick here

2.  Pierre Boulle, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, also wrote a novel set on a planet of the star Betelgeuse, and it too spawned a successful movie (and eventually many more.) Name the first movie made from that book. (Note that the movie, unlike the novel, is revealed to be actually set on Earth in its famous final scene.)

3.  Planets of this three-star system are understandably a common site for science fiction stories. Examples include Robert Silverberg's first book; the planet Rakhat in Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow; as well as the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar. This star system was also the original destination of the Robinson family before they became Lost in Space (in the '60s TV series.) Name this star system.

4.  This planet with a mysterious worldwide intelligence is featured in films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, based on a novel by a Polish science fiction writer. Name both the planet (which has a name recalling our sun) and the author (whose name might recall our moon, or at least our lunar exploration).

5.  N. K. Jemisin made history when she won the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years running, for each volume of a trilogy. Most of the action is set on a continent called the Stillness. Per the title of the trilogy, on which planet is this continent located?

6.  The late great Ursula Le Guin set much of her science fiction in a future sometimes called "Hainish". She won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the notably cold planet Gethen. What is the English name for that planet (supposedly also the translation of Gethen into English?) (That English nickname is also used in the title of a short story set on the planet.)

7.  Perhaps the most famous planet located outside our Solar System in TV is Vulcan. In which episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Theodore Sturgeon, did Spock's undergoing pon farr force the Enterprise to return to Vulcan.

8.  Samuel R. Delany gave one of his novels the subtitle "an ambiguous heterotopia". The novel's protagonist, Bron Helstrom, lives on a moon of the planet Neptune, though he was born on Mars and visits Earth during the novel. Name either the original title of the novel or Delany's preferred title.

9.  A long series of novels beginning with Dune,by Frank Herbert, centers around control of which planet(also sometimes called Dune), the source of the spice mélange, which among other things is used to help navigate starships. If you don't remember the novel, you may remember David Lynch's film, or the SyFy Channel miniseries. (And, reportedly, Denis Villeneuve is working on a pair of films based on Dune.)

10.  Cixin Liu (or Liu Cixin), was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, not to mention gaining fans including Barack Obama. The novel in question concerns invaders from the planet Trisolaris, so-called because its system has three suns. What is the title of the novel, in its English translation, based on the difficulties caused by the complex orbit of Trisolaris due to those three suns (and also representing a system in Newtonian mechanics that is not amenable to a closed-form solution?)

11.  In recent years a great many extrasolar planets have been detected by various means, and science fiction writers are beginning to use those planets in their novels. Allen Steele has written a long series of novels set on a (as yet undetected!) moon of one of those extrasolar planets, 47 Ursae Majoris b. The planet is called Bear (for obvious reasons) – what is the trickier name of the moon which Steele's characters colonize?

12.  While more famous for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis also wrote a trilogy about a man named Elwin Ransom, with books set primarily on Malacandra, Perelandra, and Thulcandra (the Silent Planet.) Give the usual English names for these planets (in the above order.) 


13. The planet Mesklin is noted for its unusual shape, which leads to a very strange gravity gradient. The novels set there were written by a high school science teacher named Harry Stubbs, who used this name as a pseudonym.


14. On which planet is the title structure of Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel, Icehenge, found? (Well, at least it was a planet when the book was published!)


15. Leigh Brackett wrote a number of stories and novels about this recurring character. Though he is most associated with Mars, his adventures also took him to Venus, and out of the Solar System to the planet Skaith, and he was actually born on Mercury. His last name might suggest the nature of the landscapes of, at least, Mars and Mercury. Who was this character?