Sunday, June 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts turns 54 today. He is one of the most consistly interesting and original SF writers, and also a remarkably perceptive (and also very snarky on occasion) critic. Here, then, is a selection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction.

Locus, May 2002

Sci Fiction for April and May features several fine stories, and two outstanding ones. One of the more interesting is Adam Roberts' "Swiftly", which is an alternate history of sorts, extrapolating from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels to a mid-19th Century in which the various "Pacifican" species, such as Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, are being exploited by humans. The story tells of an English agitator for Pacifican rights, and the turn in the war between England and France that occurs when the French gain the alliance of the Brobdingnagians.

Locus, February 2003

Spectrum SF #9 is finally out, dated November 2002. Adam Roberts's novella "The Imperial Army" rather cynically examines a Galactic Empire at war with an implacable, incomprehensible, alien species. The cliché ideas, and some SF in-jokes, signal that the main purpose is to send up certain SFnal assumptions.

Locus, November 2003

PS Publishing continues to release interesting long novellas in book form. Two fine entries from 2003 are Adam Roberts's Jupiter Magnified and Robert Freeman Wexler's In Springdale Town. The SFnal event at the center of Roberts's story is Jupiter suddenly looming hugely in Earth's skies. The narrator is a Swedish poet, once regarded as very promising, but who has been blocked for some time. As you might expect, this is an overtly "literary" story, complete with a selection of Stina's poems at the end. I was interested but in the end not quite captivated.

Review of Constellations (Locus, March 2005)

Another fascinating story about an unexpectedly ordered sky is Adam Roberts's "The Order of Things", in which humanity is engaged on a great project to reshape the coastlines of the world into geometrically regular forms. And it seems that the sky itself is just as orderly: the stars arranged in a regular grid. The story concerns a stodgy coastal engineer and his radical brother, along the way hinting at the dark background of this society.

Locus, April 2006

Elemental is an anthology from Tor supporting a very worthy cause: Tsunami relief. Alas the stories as a whole aren’t terribly impressive. I did like Adam Roberts’s “And Tomorrow and”, a reimagining of Macbeth assuming you take the witch’s promise to him a bit more literally. There are quite a few more decent stories here, but none that thrilled me.

Review of Forbidden Planets (Locus, October 2006)

I thought the best story was the last, Adam Roberts’s “Me-Topia”. It starts a bit slowly, but justifies all by the end. A spaceship crewed by future neanderthals lands on an impossible planet outside of the Solar System’s ecliptic. They find breathable air, and 1 g of gravity, and eventually a curiously familiar geography. And then a representative of long-gone homo sapiens, who claims to own this odd planet and who doesn’t want guests. Roberts’ gives all this weirdness an effective SFnal explanation, and brings his story to a gripping conclusion.

Locus, May 2008

Celebration is published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the British Science Fiction Association, and it is an excellent anthology. Two stories in particular stand out. ... Adam Roberts is extremely fond of riffing on old SF. For example his recent novels Splinter and Swiftly are respectively based on Jules Verne’s To the Sun/Off on a Comet and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. “The Man of the Strong Arm” is another example. Set in a male-dominated, oppressed future, it tells of a man who resurrects old texts – including science fiction, such as a tale by Edgar Burroughs of Rice, about a man willing himself to a red star. Or a tale about “Armstrong”, who rides the gods Saturn and Apollo to the Moon. The story turns on his rather humorous interpretations of the old texts (always attempting to make them support the leader’s ego), and then on an intervention by a free group of women.

Locus, February 2009

Adam Roberts’s “A Prison Sentence of One Thousand Years” is a quietly powerful story from the Winter Postscripts. A man just released from such a punishment tells his story, in so telling slowly revealing his disconnection from his society, and the reason for his sentence.

Locus, March 2010

“Anhedonia”, by Adam Roberts (The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF), is excellent. Aliens have come to us offering technological wonders including star travel. A group of humans on Mars is trying to learn the aliens’ secrets, and is finding the process frustrating. In particular, they have been altered so as not to feel emotion. Sense of wonder – a key root of the desire to explore – is after emotional at base – can we only travel to the stars by losing the desire to travel? Roberts goes beyond just asking that question – he comes to a legitimately mindblowing explanation.

Locus, August 2014

One of the non space-oriented stories in Reach for Infinity is “Trademark Bugs: A Legal History”, by Adam Roberts, which like Castro's “The New Provisions” is a satire on corporate rapacity, and which also perhaps overplays its hand. And which also is ghoulishly entertaining. Here pharmaceutical companies find themselves too successful for their own good: they've managed to pretty much cure everything, so there's no more need for new drugs. Their solution is to engineer new diseases, which then will require new pharmaceutical treatments. The story follows the legal challenges to aspects of this situation, and how ultimately the entire social order is changed as a result.

Locus, December 2014

Adam Roberts is at his very best in “Thing and Sick” (Solaris Rising3). This is set in the Antarctic in the 1980s. The narrator is a rather normal young scientist or technician, spending his time reading SF, drinking beer, playing the contemporary movies they have on VHS, and looking forward the the odd letter from his girlfriend. His companion is a bit odder – his only reading is philosophy (Kant's Critique of Pure Reason), he doesn't get letters, and he's convinced their job (to set up a radio telescope as part of the SETI project) is a waste – the answer to the Fermi Paradox can be found in Kant. And part of the answer is that the aliens are all around us, and we just can't perceive them. And – perhaps – they are not friendly. The result is scary, and in a way funny, and ambiguous and thought-provoking. SF about philosophy!

Locus, October 2016

The best piece in Crises and Conflicts is Adam Roberts’ “Between Nine and Eleven”, about the war between Human Space and the alien Trefoil. The humans are winning, but then the Trefoil come up with a terrifying weapon based on a rather Eganesque concept: changing the underlying mathematics of space. This story tells of the first human ship to encounter the Trefoil weapon, and their fortunate escape. It’s slyly told, perhaps not entirely serious but still managing to be scary as well as clever.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of James Van Pelt

Today was a day featuring two birthdays of very fine SF writers, who have done excellent short fiction, both of whom I consider friends. I've already discussed Daryl Gregory, so here's a selection fo my reviews of the work of James Van Pelt.

Locus, August 2002

Talebones for Spring 2002 has two very solid SF stories, both about crime and punishment.  William Barton's "Right to Life" is a satirical look at a man facing the executioner in a crowded future in which the state happily takes any excuse to exercise the death penalty.  James Van Pelt's "Its Hour Come Round" is a strong look at a vile criminal in the process of rehabilitation, this accomplished using "empathy treatments" and various drugs. 

Van Pelt also contributes the strongest story in a somewhat disappointing September Analog: "Far From the Emerald Isle" tells of a curious discovery on board an STL starship: cute, but minor.

Locus, September 2003

James Van Pelt's "The Long Way Home" (Asimov's, September) is an affecting story about a desperate attempt to launch a starship as a war destroys civilization -- and the aftermath.

Locus, December 2004

In the December Asimov's, James Van Pelt's "Echoing" intertwines three stories: a truck driver trying to get home in a Christmas snowstorm, a teenaged girl contemplating suicide during her parents' Christmas party, and a starship captain lost in the tangles of [M]-space. The stories are involving enough, but I thought the forced correspondences a bit strained.

Locus, May 2005

James Van Pelt's "The Inn at Mount Either" is the prize story this month, however. The title inn has a unique property – it is built on a sort of nexus between alternate worlds, and one can walk to different versions of the hotel. But Daniel has a problem – he can't find his wife. Then he compounds the problem by going to look for her ... It's not precisely a new idea, but Van Pelt puts a nice spin on it.

Review of The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories (Locus, July 2005)

The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories, by James Van Pelt (Fairwood Press, 0-9746573-5-2, $17.99, 216pp, tp) August 2005.

Some writers are short story writers, some are novelists. And the plain fact is that it is novelists who gain more attention. If anything the situation is worse today than some decades ago, when writers like Robert Sheckley and Harlan Ellison could establish reputations mostly on the basis of short fiction: aided by mass market short story collections. Nowadays short story collections are mostly relegated to the small press. (Perhaps in compensation, it seems in some ways easier to get a short story collection into print – if harder to get it seen by a wide audience.) So it behooves us to take a look at what is coming from the smaller publishers.

One of the SF field's best new short fiction writers is James Van Pelt. His stories appear regularly in Analog, Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, and elsewhere – strong work in the tradition of what one might call "consolidators". These are writers like Robert Silverberg and Robert Reed (to name very prominent examples from different generations) who don't make names with splashy ideas or as leaders of "movements", but who write well-crafted stories based on careful insight into established SFnal ideas. Noticeable in Van Pelt's stories is the focus on the feelings of ordinary people in situations that are mostly ordinary to them – if strange to us.

Van Pelt's first collection, Strangers and Beggars, appeared two years ago from Fairwood Press (the small press responsible for the fine magazine Talebones). The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories is his second, and a stronger book. [I should add that Van Pelt does have a couple of novels to his credit as well, by now.]

The title story is one of his best known pieces, a Nebula nominee, about a future in which nothing seems to breed true – neither animals nor humans. A man travels with a "circus" including a two-year-old advertised as "The Last of the O[riginal]-Forms". She isn't, of course, and the reactions to her are heartbreaking. Another strong story closes the book, "A Flock of Birds", a striking story about human extinction, beautifully contrasted with other extinction events.

Other intriguing stories include "Its Hour Come Round" , a look at a vile criminal being rehabilitated by "empathy treatments" and various drugs. "The Long Way Home" is an affecting story about a desperate attempt to launch a starship as a war destroys civilization -- and the aftermath. "The Pair-a-Duce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championships" rather belies its light-seeming title: telling of a rich man's cloned copy, a young man working for him, and a space disaster. "A Wow Finish" is a time travel story and love story, set at the opening night of Casablanca – sweet and affecting.

Regular SF readers may have missed two stories that come from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine – both are fantasy, though with sufficient mystery elements to appeal to that audience. "The Sound of One Foot Dancing" is ghost story featuring Fred Astaire and an aspiring young dancer, in the shadow of World War II. "Once They Were Monarchs" begins as a straightforward story of a lifeguard concerned about a creepy boy who may be abusing younger girls, but slowly reveals a surprising and effective secret about its protagonist and its villain.

The book is enjoyable throughout – Van Pelt is a strong writer who continues to improve. I'm still looking for the story that really stuns me – he is a writer I will always read with interest, and a writer who doesn't disappoint, but I'm still looking to be overwhelmed.

Locus, October 2005

Talebones for Summer is another decent issue. Perhaps James Van Pelt’s “One Day, in the Middle of the Night” is best, a clever recasting of a cute poem into a dark tale of sibling rivalry aboard a starship.

Locus, September 2006

Also moving but just slightly forced in the October-November Asimov's is James Van Pelt’s “The Small Astral Object Genius”, which has a pretty cool idea at its center. Dustin is a teenager who plays with a sort of fad toy that might have real scientific value. It’s a small sphere, called a “Peek-a-Boo”, which can be sent thousands of light years away, take a picture, and return. Most of the pictures will be of empty space, but every so often one can capture an image of an interesting object: a nebula or a star or even a planet. Dustin is a particularly interested in small objects like planets, and he obsessively sends his Peek-a-Boo in search of pictures. Partly, however, this is to escape the discord caused by his parents’ failing marriage. Then he makes a remarkable discovery. All this is interesting enough, but I thought the ending unconvincing, a bit manipulative.

Locus, June 2008

James Van Pelt’s “Rock House” (Talebones, Spring) is modeled on Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, and it is excellent work. The narrator visits his long lost friend and the friend’s sister, who live together, rather creepily, in a house carved out of rock. The narrator is tempted to join the siblings in their strange quest, tied to the seemingly living but not living title house.

Locus, February 2009

Talebones for Winter leads off with a fine James Van Pelt story, “Floaters”, in which a man dying of an AIDS-like disease is enlisted into a secret project to observe the future – an observation which, alas, reveals that the world will end in just a few years. Van Pelt deals with the implications both logically and emotionally effectively.

Locus, June 2009

The best story at Analog for June comes from James Van Pelt. In “Solace” he intertwines the story of a man trying to survive a bitter winter at an Old West mine with that of a woman trying to remember Earth on a starship – quiet and moving work, in Van Pelt’s most familiar mode.

Locus, January 2013

It's not fair, really, to, in contrast, suggest that James Van Pelt's “The Family Rocket” (Asimov's, January) isn't “engaged” with the future. Indeed perhaps its theme, regret at the loss of the dream of space travel, might be regarded as quite directly engaging with our present future. But that very theme is central to what I call “Where's my Flying Car” SF – SF that explicitly discusses the way we have failed to live up to old SF dreams. “The Family Rocket” is a character-centric story in which a young man brings his girlfriend to his family home – his father's junkyard – embarrassed by his father's old stories of building a rocket from the junk he has collected. And of course he is pushed to a more sympathetic view of his father's dreams – in a quite moving story. (The kicker, to be sure, is that in this particular future space travel, travel even to Mars, is a reality, if one reserved mostly to the rich.)

Locus, January 2017

Two stories in December by Analog regulars are also worth particular notice. James Van Pelt’s “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” is about a girl named Tomika Corbett who discovers the old Tom Corbett juvies and becomes fascinated by space. She desperately wants a career in space, and is even more motivated, in the long run, by her inevitable Space Cadet nickname, and by the resistance of teachers who disparage the old Tom Corbett book (which really were quite awful, to contemporary eyes, as I recently learned when I read one). She begins to dream of aliens coming to take her away – and she tentatively befriends another bullied kid, even smarter than her – which gives her a tough choice when – in her dreams (?) – the aliens really come. I thought this story striking for the way in which what seems old-fashioned wish-fulfillment is revealed to be a terribly sad meditation on the contemporary loss of the dream of the future we once seemed to share.

Locus, December 2018

Last month I noted the tendency of non-genre writers to use SFnal tropes in the service of fairly traditional mainstream ideas. And this month I’m looking at a classic “little magazine”, Stonecoast Review, which features a couple of very fine stories by SF writers – indeed, by writers known for writing fairly traditional SF. And, really, both writers are, in these cases, using SFnal tropes in the service of fairly traditional mainstream ideas. (Indeed, this has always been a thing – and not a bad thing either.) James Van Pelt’s “Mambo No. M51” is about Emma Sophia, whom we soon learn has been voted “sexiest pop artist of the year”, as well as (by the protagonist) potentially “nuttiest”. The story, told by a man helping with the tech for her newest video, concerns her fascination with the literal “music of the stars” (radio telescope recordings) and her desire to lose herself in a video presentation of space while listening to her interpretation of the stars’ music; and the protagonist’s increasing involvement with that obsession (obviously driven in part by his somewhat sublimated sexual attraction to her). It’s pretty effective work, both as a character study and as a presentation of scientific wonder.

Locus, April 2019

In the March-April Analog there is a good solid story from James Van Pelt, “Second Quarter and Counting”, told from the POV of a 70-year-old woman, whose long-time best friend is undergoing a treatment called “Backspin”, which revitalizes people so that they are physically – and mostly mentally – 20 again. But there is a risk that the mental changes will be more complete – perhaps personality change? Or amnesia? The protagonist, a swimmer, remains in very good shape for her age – should she consider the same treatment? Or will she lose who she is? It’s a very sober examination, and a strongly character based piece, not particularly slanted to make a point on either side of the debate.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory turns 54 today. I've been a big fan of his short fiction for a long time, though alas he writes much less of it now that he's primarily a novelist. Below I present a selection of my reviews of his shorter work for Locus. I should mention his current Hugo nominee for Best Novelette, "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth", which is an exceptional piece about a man's long life as Earth is radically changed by an alien invasion of sorts; and I should also mentione his remarkable 2017 novel Spoonbenders, a Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominee. I reviewed that on this blog here: Spoonbenders and other 2017 Novels.

Locus, July 2004

The other novelet in the July F&SF is Daryl Gregory's "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy", in which a man named Tim returns to his home town to try to deal with the events that crippled him as a teenager – all revolving around his nerdy friend and a strange movie the two shot over several years. The other boy died while Tim was crippled by an accidental (?) explosion while shooting the movie. Upon return Tim again meets his friend's parents, and we quickly gather that Tim's friend's home life was not very good – how this affected the boys' relationship, their movie, and the climactic events slowly comes clear. It's a fine story that I felt somehow fell short of being first-rate – perhaps it is just a bit too long for its emotional content, perhaps its revelations are clear too soon so that the conclusion is a bit too flat.

Locus, October 2005

Daryl Gregory, in “Second Person, Present Tense” (Asimov's, September 2005), offers a fascinating look at the nature of our identity and consciousness. A teenaged girl overdoses on a new drug that temporarily disconnects the conscious self from decision-making (brain research suggests that the brain makes “decisions” to take actions prior to the conscious mind making the same decision). The overdose results ultimately in the formation of a new consciousness – a completely different personality in the same body with (eventually) the same memories. It’s fascinating stuff, well explored here via the girl and her parents and her doctor trying to deal with the new identity. (I was reminded a bit of Holly Phillips’s “The Other Grace” from earlier this year, which used amnesia to bring its main character to a similar place.)

Locus, April 2006

Best in the April F&SF is a solid Daryl Gregory outing, “Gardening at Night”. This concerns a project to clear landmines using a lot of fairly intelligent “mytes”: interconnected small robots. The problem is, the mytes, as with seemingly all “fairly intelligent robots” in SF history, seem to have their own ideas about what to do with their lives. It’s a thoughtful, interesting, well done story.

Locus, December 2006

The December F&SF also features another intriguing story from Daryl Gregory, “Damascus”, in which a divorced woman gets involved with a religious cult based around a kuru-like disease. The story asks, in a way, if religion is a disease – or, at any rate, can a disease mimic a religion? Gregory has been using SFnal ideas wonderfully, to ask deep questions.

Locus, October 2010

From Daryl Gregory we have become used to challenging stories about the frontiers of contemporary neurological research, so perhaps it is a bit of a surprise to see in “Unpossible” (F&SF, October-November) a fantasy about a man whose wife and son have committed suicide. He is trying to rediscover something he lost during childhood, and so he resurrects a bike that had special attachments with such markings as “unpossible”. This is a way to a fantastical universe populated by characters that will be familiar to most readers – and Gregory’s point turns nicely on that familiarity, and on how we perhaps forget too readily our love of those characters.

Eclipse Two Review (Locus, November 2008)

Finally a borderline case is also among the best stories here “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm”, by Daryl Gregory, tells of an island ruled by Lord Grimm, who seems obsessed with opposing the United States’s superheroes. He has kidnapped another, and the inevitable result is war – again. Just as inevitably, it is ordinary people like the heroine, who works in a factory making robots to fight the superheroes, who face the brunt of the catastrophic results of war. The political overtones are obvious enough, and well expressed.

Birthday Review: Two YA novels from Charles Sheffield

Charles Sheffield was born in England on 25 June 1935, and died in 2002. He lived in the US for a long time, and was married to the excellent writer Nancy Kress. I loved Sheffield's work when I was first reading the magazines, and when he was a regular in Analog, Galaxy, and Amazing. I highly recommend novels like Cold as Ice and the later Heritage Universe series.

Alas, the only reviews I wrote of his work were of a couple of books in Tor's YA series called Jupiter, from the late '90s. I didn't find these as successful as his best work. Still, here are two shortish reviews of a couple of those books.

Putting Up Roots, by Charles Sheffield

Charles Sheffield's Putting Up Roots is a Jupiter novel from Tor. That is, one of their new series of YA SF novels.  These seem explicitly to be an attempt to recreat something at least vaguely resembling Heinlein's juveniles, but for the late '90s.

Unfortunately, many of the efforts in this line I've read have been forced. Putting Up Roots is not a terribly successful effort, though, that said, I still found it a decently enjoyable read. It concerns a teenager, Josh Kerrigan, who is basically abandoned by his actress mother. He ends up with his aunt and uncle, who are living on an isolated family farm, which is being put out of business by a big agricultural corporation. This corporation makes a deal with the older couple which ends up sending the boy and his autistic cousin, Dawn, to Solferino, a newly opened planet with agricultural prospects. They end up in a group with several other similarly abandoned kids, and with a couple of suspicious-acting adults. After a few not very convincing adventures, they learn what the mysterious goings on really are, and they also (natch!) learn to trust and value the other kids despite original hostility. They don't exactly solve the main plot problem: they have it solved for them.

That's one problem.  Another is the fundamental absurdity of the whole situation.  For one thing, the pioneer farming setup just seems silly. We're asked to believe, yet again, in faceless utterly evil corporations, who'd gladly murder several kids, without compunction, yet who also clumsily screw up the situation. (But these corporations aren't all dumb: they can manipulate local weather so that Josh's uncle's back 40 gets a drought while the neighboring corporate farms get plenty of rain.) We're asked to act as if a major plot element is a surprise: Solferino turns out to have (Gasp!) intelligent natives, even though the eeevill corporations insist they are just dumb animals. Gee, we've never seen an idea like =that= before. (And of course it's the autistic kid who breaks through to them.) And as I said, the eventual plot resolution is handed to the characters on a platter, not earned.

The Cyborg From Earth, by Charles Sheffield

I read another book in Tor's Jupiter series of YA novels, Charles Sheffield's The Cyborg from Earth. This is probably the best I've read in this line of books. It's got some silliness, and Sheffield takes some shortcuts, but a lot of it was pretty neat, and it was a fast, compelling read. Jefferson Kopal is the heir to Kopal Transportation, a major spaceship-building concern. Family tradition deems he must spend a few years in the Navy before taking his board position, but he is not terribly interested in Navy service.  His interests are in the area of science and engineering, like his disgraced uncle Drake, who disappeared taking a wormhole the wrong way many years previously.  But duty, and his ailing mother's concern over his slimy uncle (really a cousin) and the uncle's fairhaired boy of a son, and their manoeuvring to take over the company, lead him to enter the Navy, qualifying by the skin of his teeth.

He is sent to the Messina Dust Cloud, where the colonists are supposedly close to rebellion.  Worse yet, the colonists are rumoured to be cyborgs: against Earth law, they have AI's and supposedly they themselves merge with machines.  On the way he realizes that something is up: the Captain is incompetent, and seems to have no intention of negotiating with the colonists. But an encounter with a space-born life form, a Space Sounder, leaves Jeff seriously injured, and at the mercy of the Messina colonists. Their cure for him leaves him a cyborg, too, by Earth standards.  Soon his loyalty to Earth is tested, as it becomes clear that the Earth authorities are not playing fair with the colonists, that the prejudice against AI's is dangerous and for example has contributed to his mother's illness, and that he really likes some of the Messina colonists, including a girl his age and the mysterious scientist Simon Macafee, who has invented a form of artificial gravity control. The solution involves the nature of the Space Sounders, the history of Simon Macafee and his discoveries, and Jefferson's own responsibilities. I did like it, despite some predictable twists, a bit of excessive villainy on the part of Earth, and some scientific, character, and plot implausibilities.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Birthday Review: Two Short Novels from Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan turns 71 today. Last year on this date I posted my look at his most famous novel, Atonement. Today, how about some short looks at a couple of very short novels.

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam. This is a very short novel (barely over 40,000 words) about two men, a successful composer and a successful newspaper editor, close friends, who were both lovers of the same woman. The book opens with this woman's funeral, then follows the newspaper editor as the woman's husband offers some salacious pictures of a high-ranking minister for publication. The composer is working on a commission for "The Millennium Symphony". He and the editor have a row about the propriety of publishing the pictures, then, feeling morally superior, the composer heads to the Lake Country to find "inspiration" to finish his symphony. There he, in a cowardly fashion, fails to intervene when he witnesses a woman accosted by a man. The moral failings of both men lead to professional disaster, which each blames on the other ... leading finally to a clever and vicious twist ending.  This is well done, sleek, blackly funny, but all that said it's rather slight. I like what I've read by McEwan (an early story, "Solid Geometry", which appeared in Fantastic in the mid-'70s, and an early, scary, novel, The Cement Garden). [Later I came to read Atonement and other novels.] And I liked Amsterdam. But I wouldn't have thought it measured up to a Booker. I will say that his previous novel, Enduring Love, looks based on reviews to be more substantial, and I seem to recall that it was a near scandal when it didn't win: perhaps the win for Amsterdam was a make good.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of the best writers of our time. I am a particular fan of his novel Atonement, a remarkable look at the destructive effect of a small, only mildly malicious, act by a teenaged girl. As I have mentioned before I discovered him in of all places Ted White's Fantastic, back in 1975 or so, with the story "Solid Geometry", a very fine creepy piece.

His new novel is very short -- novella length at something on the order of 38,000 words. It is nominally the story of one night -- the wedding night of a young British couple in 1962. (Critically, as Christopher Hitchens points out, a year before "sexual intercourse began", in the famous words of Philip Larkin.) Of course the story really extends backward -- to the childhoods of the two, and to their courtship -- and forward, to tell quickly how their lives worked out.

The trouble is, they are both virgins. Edward, the man, is terribly concerned that his inexperience will lead to an embarrassing failure to perform -- or, perhaps, rather too rapid a performance. Florence's problems are more severe -- she is terribly afraid of sex, and she really does not want to have sex at all. Ever. (There is a brief hint -- which I may be exaggerating, but Hitchens' review (in the new Atlantic) suggests he detected such a hint as well -- that she may have been abused -- or at least sexually frightened -- by her father.) It is not that Florence does not love Edward -- she does, quite sincerely. And she is not purely a mouse -- she is a very accomplished violinist, and the forceful leader of a promising string quartet. Edward quite sincerely loves Florence, and is consumed with desire for her. He took a first in History and hopes to write short popular historical books.

Their real problem, however (beyond Florence's evident psychological hangup, whatever its origin), is that they are culturally unable to talk about sex, or about their desires, fears, experiences or lack thereof -- anything at all. Mind you this is still a problem for people, but not to anything like the degree it was in 1962 (perhaps, though I am not sure, especially in England.) Class is also an issue -- Edward is of a slightly (though not terribly) lower class than Florence, and in particular his family has much less money. And so the novel turns on an eventually disastrous experience, and the small-t tragic results not just of that experience but of their dual failure to work through it by even the simplest of words.

It is very fine stuff, if quite small scale -- minor, surely, but well worth having. It was made into a movie, starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, in 2017.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Old Bestseller Review: Doom Castle, by Neil Munro

Old Besteller: Doom Castle, by Neil Munro

a review by Rich Horton

At long last, a return to the original subject of this blog -- popular novels of the early part of the 20th Century. This one probably wasn't a true bestseller, but it sold quite well, and also eventually got a TV adaptation.

Neil Munro (1863-1930) was a Scottish journalist, novelist, and poet. He was the illegitimate son of Ann Munro, a kitchen maid. (Some say his father was of the aristocratic Argyll family, which turns up in this novel.) His early career was as a journalist, and later in life he became editor of the Glasgow Evening News. Three series of humorous short stories were written for the Evening News, and arguably he remains most famous now for those. But his early novels were mostly historical novels, and later novels were serious contemporary novels. All these pieces were on Scottish subjects. He was friends with such significant Scottish writers as J. M. Barrie and John Buchan, and was spoken of as an heir to Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, his novels have mostly been forgotten, though Doom Castle was dramatized by the BBC in 1980.

Doom Castle was first published in 1901, by Wm. Blackwood and Sons. My edition, also from Blackwood in 1948, is part of a posthumous reissue of many of his books, called the Inveraray Edition after his place of birth.

The story is set some 10 years after the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Victor, Comte de Montaiglon, has come to Scotland on something of a private mission, looking for a man named Drimdarroch, who betrayed a woman Victor thought he loved, leading perhaps to her death. (Many of the Scots supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie had spent time in France.) He fetches up at the somewhat dilapidated Doom Castle after being chased by some local bandits, and he encounters the Baron of Doom Castle, as well as his rather comical servant Mungo Boyd.

The Baron confesses no knowledge of the man Victor seeks, but offers his hospitality, such as it is. Doom Castle has fallen on hard times, partly because of a neighbor's predatory lawsuit. And there are mysteries -- such as who occupies the second floor -- and who is signalling from outside, playing a tune on a flageolet, to a woman (one presumes) in the castle, whom Victor is not allowed to meet.

The opening to the novel is quite slow, but things pick up once Munro has set up all his wickets and starts to knock them down. There is another encounter with the bandits, who invade the castle -- Count Victor managing to wound one of them. Victor finally manages to meet the lady of the Castle -- the Baron's daughter Olivia, and of course falls head over heels in love. But she, it seems clear, is in love with the mysterious flageolet player. Victor heads to Glasgow, still looking for "Drimdarroch", and is invited to the house of the Duke of Argyll, a good man, and there encounters his well-respected Chamberlain, Simon MacTaggart. Also there is a slimy lawyer, and his wife, who seems to be in love with MacTaggart, who has a reputation as one who likes the ladies.

We can see the shape of things coming clear. And Count Victor may be in more danger than he realizes. He also may be in better shape with Olivia than he knew. But his suspicions of the Baron are increasing -- putting him in a bad spot with regard to his conscience vs. his love for Olivia. Then the Count realizes who has been trifling with Olivia, and fights a duel, soon to be imprisoned -- suspected of murder as a result of the duel (but anyway the victim lived) -- so we are vouchsafed an escape attempt, and a meeting with a virtuous older woman ...

After the slow beginning, I thought this was a pretty fun romantic historical novel. Its serious subject -- a minor part of this particular book -- is the conflict between the Scottish lowlanders (and their rapprochement with the English) and the highlanders. But the heart of the novel is the love story, and the way Victor's original mission -- almost unimportant to him by now -- is solved along with the resolution of his new ambition. I would say Munro still deserves to be read, though he will probably never again have a significant reputation.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Ruled Britannia, and short fiction by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove was born on June 14, 1949. I should have posted something for his 70th birthday, but I was kind of busy, what with wedding preparations and a rehearsal dinner, for my daughter Melissa and her now husband Joshua Whitman. So, better late than never -- here's some of my reviews of Harry Turtledove's work.

Review of Ruled Britannia, February 2003 3SF

Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia considers a fairly common Alternate History point of departure -- the Spanish Armada was successful in conquering England in 1588.  (As in, for example, Keith Roberts's Pavane and Kingsley Amis's The Alteration -- two of the very greatest Alternate History novels.) But Turtledove sets his story much earlier -- not in roughly our present day, as with the two examples I mentioned, but rather in 1597, less than a decade into the Spanish occupation of England, with King Philip's daughter Isabella installed on the throne.  (As Turtledove points out, Isabella actually did have at least a tenuous claim to the English crown -- no surprise, perhaps, given how tangled European dynasties became.)  England has been forcefully restored to Catholicism, and a homebred English Inquisition is killing people for such crimes as witchcraft and sodomy.  But in general the populace seems resigned to the changes, if not precisely happy about them.

The protagonists of the book are the greatest playwrights of that time: England's William Shakespeare, and Spain's Lope de Vega.  Shakespeare is presented as a vaguely apolitical man, working away as his company, Lord Westmoreland's Men, presents such of his plays as Prince of Denmark and If You Like It.  He is almost simultaneously given two commissions.  A faction of English resisters wants him to write a play about Boudicca, the English queen who resisted the Romans, in order to help stir up passions against the Spanish occupiers.  And the Spanish authorities want him to write a play about King Philip, to be presented in his memory on the occasion of his death, which is soon expected.  Lope de Vega is a lieutenant in the occupying force, and it is his job to keep an eye on Shakespeare and his fellow players.  He is also charged with tracking down suspected criminals such as Christopher Marlowe, and he spends the rest of his time juggling a variety of lovers, both English and Spanish.

The novel moves rather slowly to its fairly predictable conclusion.  It's generally enjoyable -- it must be said that it's fun to daydream about additional plays from the pens of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  And Turtledove raids Shakespeare's works (as well as Marlowe's and Dekker's and Fletcher's and others) for much of the dialogue, as well as for the invented snatches he presents of the new plays.  But I couldn't quite believe in the presented characters of Shakespeare and de Vega: much attention is paid to putting period sentiments in their mouths, but their general actions and attitudes still struck me as too modern.  And the plot is a bit too slowly paced, not really twisty enough, and rather implausible in basic outline.  It's a pleasant way to pass a few hours, but not a fully successful book.

Locus, April 2004

The other novella from The First Heroes is from Harry Turtledove, called "The Horse of Bronze", and it's a good one as well, the best story I've seen from Turtledove in some time. It supposes an alternate past in which the lands of the dawn of civilization are variously occupied by mythological creatures: centaurs, sphinxes, sirens, fauns, vampires, piskies, etc. The wise old centaur Cheiron takes a ship to the Tin Isles to discover why the tin necessary to make bronze has been in short supply -- and the reason (easily enough guessed, so I won't say it) bodes ill indeed for the centaurs' future.

Locus, July 2005

The Enchanter Completed is a tribute anthology in memory of L. Sprague de Camp. Harry Turtledove has solicited a number of stories that are either in De Camp's style, or set in one of his fictional milieus, or even in one case feature De Camp and his wife as characters. It is an entertaining book. Highlights include Turtledove's own "The Haunted Bicuspid", in which a plainspoken businessman in mid-19th Century Baltimore gets a new tooth from an unexpected source, with amusing if rather scary effects.

Locus, August 2005

Harry Turtledove's "He Woke in Darkness" (Asimov's, August) is a bit too formulaic – retelling the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in an alternate Philadelphia, Mississippi in which white people are those oppressed – but it was certainly spooky that the day I read the story was the day Edgar Ray Killen was at long last convicted for his role in the killings.

Locus, December 2005

The lead story for the December Analog is Harry Turtledove’s novella “Audubon in Atlantis”. Turtledove is of course the leading practitioner of Alternate History, and this story is a nice example of the pleasures of that subgenre. It is straightforwardly a description of Audubon’s trip to the mid-Atlantic continent called Atlantis in search of the nearly extinct birds called “honkers”. (Large birds resembling, perhaps, moas.) Atlantis, we soon learn, is the Eastern portion of North America, which in this alternate universe has become separated from the rest of the continent – resulting in a different ecosystem (analogous in many ways to the differences between Australia and the rest of the world). The story is a very effective portrayal of Audubon as a man, as well as a nicely pointed look at the problems of isolated ecologies when they come into contact with the rest of the world.

Locus, February 2013

At Analog in March Harry Turtledove offers a sharp look at a possible future, “The End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine”. We see Willie playing with his pet fox, and encountering a quarrelsome neighbor, and meeting a pretty girl, and we learn what Willie is like, and his fox, and the girl, but not so much the neighbor – they are people designed for a nonconfrontational future, changed in the way the fox was changed to be doglike. And the story shows us what that gains, and loses, and asks (without an answer), would it be worth it?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Birthday Review: The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

Richard Powers turns 62 today. He's been a big name in contemporary literature for some three decades now, and he remains at the top, more or less, having won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent novel, The Overstory. Here's a long blog post I wrote a couple of decades ago about one of his first novels.

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers

A review by Rich Horton

This book had been close to the top of my TBR list for an inordinate amount of time. I thought the book sounded interesting from reviews back it first came out (1991). Later on Glen Engel-Cox praised it extravagantly, and it started showing up on my Alexlit recommendation list as well.
Two weeks ago [quite a while back] I finally tackled it.  Not the most auspicious time, in some ways: I've been working extra hours, and my reading time has been somewhat curtailed.  Perhaps partly as a consequence, the book started slowly -- or at any rate my reading started slowly -- but somewhere about halfway in it became wholly absorbing, and in the final analysis it's a wonderful book, intellectually involving, emotionally wrenching, well-constructed, and deeply moving. 

The book is told in three separate tracks. We open with Jan O'Deigh, a research librarian in Brooklyn, receiving a postcard from her ex-lover, Franklin Todd, telling her that their close mutual friend, Dr. Stuart Ressler, has just died. Jan responds by quitting her job, and spending the next year or so trying to learn enough about genetics to understand Dr. Ressler's work. She narrates an account of that year, interspersed with a report or two from Frank Todd, who seems to be in Europe, researching his long-delayed dissertaion on the obscure Flemish painter Herri met Bles.  All the time she  is apparently trying to work out how to find Franker, and (we suppose) rekindle their relationship.  Jan also tells us of the events of a couple of years previously, when she met Dr. Ressler at the library, then, by coincidence, Franklin.  Franklin asks her to research a question: for what was Stuart Ressler briefly well-known?  For Dr. Ressler, now Frank's coworker on the night shift at a dataprocessing firm, has a mysterious past as an important scientist. Todd wants to know why Dr. Ressler abandoned his position to do, essentially, scutwork. Jan finds a bit of the story: a Life magazine profile from 1958 highlights Dr. Stuart Ressler as one of the young scientists on the track of the way DNA encodes genetic information.

So, two tracks are Jan in the "present" (1985), and Jan, Stuart, and Franklin in the near past (1983). Jan becomes fascinated with Franklin, and with Dr. Ressler, and begins visiting them while they are working. (There night shift job is rather relaxed in nature, most of the time.)  She falls in love with Todd, eventually pushing herself to break off her longterm relationship with an advertising man, Keith Tuckwell. And she and Frank, among other things, probe at the secretive Dr. Ressler about his past.

The third narrative track, in third person, follows Stuart Ressler, back in 1957-1958, as he comes to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (my school!) to accept a research fellowship and join a multi-disciplinary team trying to figure out the way the four DNA bases encode genetic information. The various members of the team are presented at first as brilliant scientists. Karl Ulrich is the somewhat remote and driving leader. Toveh Botkin is an older woman, a refugee from the Nazis, who befriends Stuart and teaches the tonedeaf man about music.  Tooney Blake is a intellectually exciting man, a neighbor of Stuart's, who with his wife and precocious child are the first people to really try to draw Dr. Ressler out socially.  Joe Lovering is a natural at the new field of computer programming. And Dan Woytowich is a news-obssessed man (reminding me of Sturgeon's MacLyle, from "... and Now the News") whose wife is struggling to have a baby after a couple of miscarriages. Most important to the story, though, is Jeannette Koss, a couple of years older than Stuart, married to a food engineer.

Stuart falls in love with Jeannette, and she with him, obssessively. At the same time, he begins to work out some ideas which might lead to cracking the DNA code -- but Dr. Ulrich is skeptical, and the team fractures, with Ressler and Koss and Botkin on one side, and the other three pursuing a dead end (as we are given to know). Tooney Blake, who could have held the team together, has a sort of epiphany and leaves to go back to school and study something more important.

The three threads are woven carefully together. In the past, Stuart and Jeannette stumble into a potentially disastrous affair, while the rest of the team crumbles about them for various personal reasons. In 1983, Jan and Franklin are in love, but somehow unable to commit fully, while certain impulsive, well-meant, acts lead to disaster for a friend of theirs. While in 1985 Jan learns more and more about what she really wants from life, and what made Frank and Stuart tick.

All this is further tied together by constant analogizing of such things as Poe's codebreaking story "The Gold Bug", the way that the four DNA bases form the fundamental genetic code for all life, and the way that Bach, in the Goldberg Variations, took four "base notes" and made a work of art as dizzying and complex, in a way, as life itself. The book moves towards a bittersweet and moving climax, marred perhaps just a bit by a somewhat overplotted and not quite believable crisis at the dataprocessing center where Frank and Stuart work. But by the end I was in tears, and the book had managed to create a world of its own for me, the way great books do.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Birthday Review: The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman

The great Joe Haldeman, SFWA Grand Master, winner of multiple Hugos and Nebulas and too many other awards for me to count, turns 76 today. I haven't seen a novel since 2014s Work Done for Hire, so I don't know how much more we're going to get from him, but his career as it stands is remarkable. This is a review I wrote for my blog back in 2007 of his novel The Accidental Time Machine, the last in a quite remarkable late career run of singleton novels that (to my eye) began with The Coming (2000).

The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman

a review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman has, somewhat quietly, become one of my favorite writers, for sheer reliability. It's not that I didn't highly respect him before -- I liked The Forever War a great deal, loved The Hemingway Hoax, and liked many of his short stories. But he wasn't a writer I would buy on sight. And then he went through a period where he just didn't interest me -- the novels Forever Peace, 1968, and Forever Free in particular -- fairly recent work -- simply did not appeal based on reviews. But beginning, as I recall, with The Coming (2000), I have read all his stuff, at about 18 month intervals. The Coming was followed by Guardian, Camouflage, Old Twentieth, and now The Accidental Time Machine. Each of these novels has been fairly short, quite different from its predecessors, compulsively readable, built around nice SFnal ideas (if usually familiar ones), well characterized, and philosophically interesting. Haldeman does sometimes have problems with endings -- the conclusion of Guardian in particular is a mess -- but without exception his novels are great fun to read, even if the ending is a bit rushed or a bit perfunctory. (Sometimes the endings aren't the point -- The Coming, for example, has a mild surprise ending that could be a letdown if you were expecting some dramatic transcendent revelation -- and clearly was a letdown to many readers -- but I think it is just what he planned, and it caps the novel he meant to write quite well.) Quite simply, Haldeman's novels are among those I most look forward to in complete confidence I will enjoy them.

The Accidental Time Machine is, in this sense, quite of a piece with its fellows. It deals with a somewhat familiar idea -- a time machine that only goes forward. The ur-narrative here, really, is Wells' The Time Machine, but this story reminded me more urgently of Poul Anderson's pulpy classic "Flight to Forever". But with plenty of original Haldeman touches. For one thing, this is his "MIT novel", just as The Coming was his "Gainesville novel". (Haldeman splits his years between MIT and Gainesville, FL.) And, as his afterword notes, Haldeman stumbled on a bafflegab explanation for his protagonist's time travel that turns out to have at least some physical plausibility.

Matt Fuller is a post-grad working on a graviton detector. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend, as it turns out for a rival post-grad. One day he notices that his machine seems to disappear briefly, then reappear. Rather quickly (perhaps too quickly) he figures out that it disappears for exponentially increasing times, and that anything within a Faraday cage attached to the machine goes with it. He assumes that the machine is traveling in time -- and, it turns out, fairly predictably in distance as well. He ends up deciding to go along with the machine -- with disastrous consequences, as he is soon detained on suspicion of murder. His only escape is farther into the future.

So we have a bit of a travelogue to varying futures, most notably one in which the Eastern US is under the rule of an oppressive theocracy. There he picks up a companion, a pretty and innocent young woman. He has some hope -- hints that he must have eventually returned to his own time, as well as contact with an AI interested in travel to the very far future indeed. The resolution is quite nice, not exactly expected but not unexpected either. The SFnal content throughout is involving, if never coruscatingly brilliant. Just intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining. Again, a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kate Wilhelm

The great Kate Wilhelm was born June 8, 1928, and died a year ago March 6, just a few months short of her 90th birthday. She was my leading candidate for most unfairly passed over would-be SFWA Grand Master -- I wonder if her turn to writing primarily mysteries over the past few decades of her life contributed to that oversight. I thought one of those mysteries, the first Barbara Holloway novel, Death Qualified, was also an exceptional SF novel. I also greatly liked the also often fantastical Constance and Charlie stories. And her novels and short fiction published within the field were also excellent. My favorite novel was probably Juniper Time; and my favorite short fiction included "Baby, You Were Great", "The Fusion Bomb", "Somerset Dreams", and "Forever Yours, Anna".

She was one of those writers nurtured somewhat, early in their careers, by Cele Goldsmith, and I had hoped to get a chance to ask her about Goldsmith, but I never did, one of my regrets. (I also waited too long to ask Harlan Ellison about Goldsmith, but fortunately I did get a chance to send Ursula K. Le Guin a letter to which she gave a lovely response.)

Here's what I've written about her short fiction, either in my "Retro-reviews" of old magazines, or of her late work, in my Locus column. As such, these notes don't really mention her very best work, but they do show that, early and late, she was always good.

Retro-review of Amazing, February 1960

The great Kate Wilhelm's first story appeared in one of the Paul Fairman issues of Fantastic in 1956, and her first important story ("The Mile-Long Spaceship") in John Campbell's Astounding in 1957, though really Robert Lowndes, at Future and Science Fiction Stories, was her most important early editor. But she did have a few stories in Goldsmith's issues. "It's a Good Trick If ..." is an amusing short piece about a family in which strange hallucinations keep happening -- even to the dog -- and it becomes eventually clear that their young son is the cause. Minor work, sure, but well enough done.

Retro-review of [The Original] Science Fiction Stories, May 1960

Kate Wilhelm's "The Living Urn" is another crime story. A disreputable art collector wishes to steal a rare "living urn". But it turns out, in a nice twist, that he can thus be useful to the authorities, who want that object safely delivered to Earth. Minor but nicely done.

Locus, February 2002

Kate Wilhelm supplies the cover story for the February F&SF, "The Man on the Persian Carpet". The two main characters are Carolyn Harley and Drake Symes, who had "fallen in and out of love since kindergarten".  But Carolyn's parents oppose the relationship, and Carolyn finds herself unexpectedly marrying a man she barely knows, after a rather creepy sexual encounter. Drake drifts into occult publishing, and Carolyn also brushes with the occult, learning palmistry.  Years later, after a child and a divorce, Carolyn meets Drake again, and they fall back in love -- but Carolyn realizes that her palm, and Drake's, and that of her teenaged son all tell of a cataclysmic event a few years in the future.  It is that event around which the story turns -- and Wilhelm drives things to a well thought out conclusion, with real sacrifice and loss amidst possible happiness, the sacrifice more poignant because of its nature (which I will not reveal).  This is the best Kate Wilhelm story I've read in a few years -- perhaps it is marred slightly by a somewhat implausible villainous plot driving the crisis, still, it's a very fine story.

Locus, April 2008

The February issue also offers an all too rare Kate Wilhelm sighting, with “The Fountains of Neptune”, a quiet story of a woman dying of cancer who visits Rome one more time and, perhaps, encounters a god.

Locus, February 2011

The January-February F&SF has a fine new Kate Wilhelm piece, “The Bird Cage”. Dr. Grace Wooten is researching methods of human near-hibernation for a rather unpleasant rich man who wants to find a way to live until his diseases can be cured. But her first human trial leads to some completely unexpected side effects, as the sleeping man somehow seems to interact with people involved in significant events in his life, including his brother and a girl who had been present when he nearly drowned as a child. Those two, after scary “fugue states” in which they remember those events, come into contact, and eventually confront Dr. Wooten, who is faced with scary evidence of the dangers of her research.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Kit Reed

Kit Reed was born June 7, 1932, and died in 2017. She was a particularly sharp satirist, and always ready to see horror in ordinary(ish) situations. She wrote quite a few novels, often non-fantastical, but for me (and I suspect, for many readers) her best work was her short fiction. This is a selection of my reviews of her work for Locus -- as with many writers with long careers, much of their best work appeared before I started writing for the magazine, and I regret thus missing her some of her best work, but she wrote incisively to the end of her life.

Locus, June 2002

May's Sci Fiction offerings are a decent set. Best is probably Kit Reed's "The Last Big Sin", about an obese man at a religiously oriented "fat farm". It seems overeating is "the last big sin", and this man struggles to comply with the boot camp conditions – only to discover a bitter secret behind the camp's operation. Reed does mordant satire as well as anybody, and this is pretty solid mordant satire.

Locus, May 2003

Kit Reed in particular is impressive in the May F&SF, with "Incursions", a striking paranoid fantasy of an ordinary man's alienation from his life. Dave Travers takes a train from his suburban home into the city, planning to apply for a job that might free him from his boring routine as a college instructor. But his sense of desperation increases, and he escapes the train in rural Connecticut: but his life is still going nowhere. The base story here is fairly familiar, but Reed's use of imagery from sources such as the old computer game Zork makes it seem new again.

Locus, September 2003

Kit Reed's wicked "Focus Group" tells of a woman who falls for a soap actor and manipulates her focus group to help his career. Sort of.

Locus, June 2004

The May lineup at Sci Fiction is strong. ... Better still is a scary little domestic piece from Kit Reed, who does domestic scariness better than anybody. "Family Bed" is told by a teenaged girl in a large family. They live their life as an advertisement for the virtue of family togetherness, including everyone sleeping in the same bed. Reed portrays the creepiness of this situation beautifully, upping the ante at nearly every paragraph, making the really icky climax effective.

Locus, September 2004

Kit Reed's "Yard Sale" (Asimov's, August) is about two sisters trying to sell their father's various obsessive collections after his death. But her father's acquisitive and hoarding spirit has survived. Reed is perhaps the most effective writer of truly original and off-center horror around, and this is another example. 

Locus review of Nine Muses (February 2006)

Kit Reed’s “Spies” is a better fit, and it too is one of the better entries here, a funny Southern story about another group of goddesses, hinted at by their names (Ada, Clo, and Lally).

Locus, September 2006

Kit Reed is perhaps the best writer we have of satirical SF horror, and “Biodad” (Asimov's, October-November) is anotherstrong example. A successful woman has two children by artificial insemination, but eventually decides to find their biological father. But his ideas of his fathering responsibilities are a nasty surprise.

Locus review of Naked City (August 2011)

Kit Reed’s “Weston Walks” takes quite a different look at New York, about a rich orphan whose only contact with the rest of the world seems to be unusual tours he gives of the city – until an odd young woman tries to get to him.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Birthday Review: Two Novels by Dorothy Heydt

Today is Dorothy Heydt's birthday. Dorothy was a regular on the wonderful Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.composition back in their glory days (late '90s, early 2000s). And she wrote two enjoyable novels. Here are my capsule looks at those two books.

Capsule Review of The Interior Life

The Interior Life is an odd fantasy published to seemingly no notice by Baen in 1990. I had never heard of it until I saw a rave review by Jo Walton on rec.arts.sf.written. It's by Katherine Blake, who turns out to be Dorothy J. Heydt, a regular rec.arts.sf.written poster. It is quite different and original, and very good, marred perhaps just a bit by a somewhat anti-climactic ending, with a bit too much pat character pairing off. The story is told on two tracks, as the protagonist, Sue, a midwestern housewife and mother of three, gets her life under control and becomes involved in her community, as well as helping her husband get a key promotion, all the while following a storyline in a fantasy world (of her invention? or a world to which she has some quasi-telepathic connection?).  In the fantasy world, the Lady Amalia follows her brother into the Darkness, which has been slowly engulfing their land for two centuries. She encounters the Lord of Darkness, and some of his slaves, and learns an important secret about the source of his power. The story leads up to a predictable but still well-handled and original confrontation between the literal forces of Light and Dark. Both base plots don't sound terribly fascinating in description (which I suspect is why the book was ignored), but the story is absorbing reading: largely for the background details: Sue's dinner parties and PTA meetings, the details of castle life and war preparation in Amalia's world. Oddly, I found myself more involved in Sue's mundane struggles than in Amalia's heroic efforts, though the latter are quite interesting.  Blake/Heydt also avoids over-obvious parallels between the two storylines.

Capsule Review of A Point of Honor

Dorothy J. Heydt's new novel is A Point of Honor.  Heydt is the author of an intriguing 1990 fantasyThe Interior Life, as by Katherine Blake), and also of a whole bunch of stories published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's magazine and anthologies. A Point of Honor takes "cyberspace" concepts in a sufficiently new direction to be worth it. The novel features Sir Mary de Courcy, a rather successful player of Chivalry, a virtual reality jousting game. After she wins a tournament, she accepts a virtual estate as forfeit from one of her foes, then she finds her real life threatened.  She hides out with one of the creators of the Virtual domain where her new estate is located, and they embark on a virtual quest to find out if there is anything fishy about the estate she has won which might justify the attacks on her. The story is exciting enough, and a good read, but it suffers from a couple of common flaws. The first is that, this being a virtual environment, the author doesn't hesitate to bend the rules outrageously in the favor of her protagonist: this is well-rationalized, but it does tend to reduce suspense a bit.  The second is that the solution to the mystery was unsatisfying: basically, the bad guy didn't seem to me to have -nearly- enough motivation to attempt murder repeatedly.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Ray Nayler

This is a shorter review collection than usual for me, because Ray Nayler has only been publishing in the SF magazines since 2015, but his work has been so exceptional, I think he deserves the extra notice. Today is his birthday, so in his honor, here we go:

Locus, July 2015

Every once in a while a story knocks you flat, and that's a special thing. When it comes from a writer unfamiliar to you, it may be even more special. Ray Nayler's “Mutability”, in the June Asimov's, is such a story for me. It's set a few centuries in the future, a time that seems pleasant enough and in some ways not much changed from now – perhaps a bit more peaceful. There are just enough hints of future tech to convince, but the key change, only slowly revealed, is that people seem to be very long-lived, with a “memory horizon” (like in Kim Stanley Robinson's “Green Mars”). The protagonist is a scholar of an obscure lost language called “SAE” (Standard American English, I trust), and the story turns on his meeting a woman in his regular cafe … They have a story, which I'll leave Nayler to tell – and it's a good one, but the gestalt of the overall story is even better. Lovely.

Locus, April 2016

And Ray Nayler’s “Do Not Forget Me” (Asimov's, March) is a nicely multiply framed story, set in Central Asia, in which a man tells his wife a story he heard from a poet about a slave raider and the strange wanderer he captures.

Locus, March 2017

Ray Nayler is back in the January-February Asimov’s with another quiet and exceptional story, “Winter Timeshare”. Regina is visiting Istanbul, as she does every winter, intending to rendezvous with her long-time lover Ilkay. The SFnal hook is that the two, relatively privileged people in this future, take their vacations in “timeshares”: that is, they are “sheathed” in “blanks”: apparently empty bodies into which consciousnesses are downloaded. The story is partly about the resentment many have of the “blanks” (or the “dead”); and about terrorist actions, which end up distracting Ilkay (a security specialist), and end up forcing Regina (occupying unfamiliar male blank) to take unexpected action. But it’s also about Istanbul in winter, and a curiously intermittent love affair; and about the hints of an extremely interesting world situation behind everything.

Locus, December 2018

Another sort of mystery is at the heart of “Incident at San Juan Bautista”, by Ray Nayler (Asimov's, November-December). In Old West San Juan Bautista, August Sutherland, German immigrant turned dentist turned hired killer, is preparing for his latest assignment. He is fascinated by a woman in the saloon, and obtains her services. But she is a much stranger creature than your standard-issue beautiful Western movie whore, as August learns when she first extracts from him his story, then tells him as much of hers as he can understand. SF readers will have ideas about what or who she is – but the story doesn’t really reveal that in detail, just shows the eerie results of her particular pastime. Cool stuff.

Birthday Review: Stories of Margo Lanagan

June 5 is Margo Lanagan's birthday. She's a brilliant Australian writer, whose stories are noticeable tinged with very effective horror. Here's a collection of my Locus reviews of her stories:

Locus, December 2006

A few anthologies of varying types prompt more thought about how theme books differ from general anthologies. It’s my general view that too specific a theme weakens a book – partly by leading to too many too similar stories, and partly by constricting writers’ imaginations. So I look forward in particular to completely “open” books, such as Eidolon 1, a descendant of the very fine, now defunct, Australian magazine Eidolon. This anthology is full of good work. In particular I liked Margo Lanagan’s quite nasty “A Fine Magic”, in which a magician plans revenge on two beautiful if rather vain sisters who have rejected his suit. The magic described is lovely and scary – and the results uncompromising.

Locus review of Dreaming Again (June 2008)

The prize is Margo Lanagan’s “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross”. Uncharacteristically for Lanagan, this is set in an unambiguously science-fictional future, in which human fertility is in ruins (we assume as a result of environmental damage). We witness the protagonist’s encounter with an apparently alien prostitute, then a meeting with a woman he had a one night stand with, which surprisingly has resulted in a viable pregnancy. It’s bitter but not mean, the characters damaged but not evil. Powerful stuff.

Locus review of Extraordinary Engines (August 2008)

At any rate, Extraordinary Engines is indeed quite fun. To begin with my favorites, I really liked two stories: Margo Lanagan’s “Machine Maid” and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover”. Lanagan’s story concerns a young bride come to an isolated Australian ranch. She has to adjust to the loneliness, the stress of leading a household, and to her husband’s attentions, for which she was woefully unprepared. Things get worse when she discovers (hardly to the reader’s surprise) the extra uses her husband can make of the robot maid he bought for her. The story works particularly well because of Lanagan’s fine writing, her capturing of the heroine’s emotions, and the slightly surprising changes she rings on the more or less expected ending.

Locus, February 2010

Another anthology very much worth your time – but possibly hard to find for Americans – is x6, an Australian collection of six novellas – mostly quite long novellas. The best stories have strikingly similar themes. “Sea-Hearts”, by Margo Lanagan, gets to a similar place from a different direction. It set in an isolated fishing community, where girl children don’t seem to be viable. The “Mams”, or wives, come from the sea. We can see where this is going – it’s a selkie story, of course. And it turns on the boys’ realization of their mothers’ state, and their reaction. Perhaps it’s more romantic than Haines’ story – perhaps too optimistic – but to me it made its point, about the dark way men can mistreat women, quite as effectively if not more so, and yet allowed that things needn’t be that way.

Locus, September 2011

I spent last month immersed in three new urban fantasy/paranormal anthologies from Ellen Datlow, and this month I see another: Blood and Other Cravings. The theme is ostensibly vampires, but often not traditional vampires: instead creatures that feed on, or crave, a variety of essential substances, not just blood. The mode is generally horror. As we certainly expect from Datlow, it’s a strong book. John Langan, Kaaron Warren, Richard Bowes, and Lisa Tuttle all shine, but my favorite story is from Margo Lanagan. “Mulberry Boys” plops us down unexplained with a teenaged boy and a sinister older man, chasing a “mulberry boy”. We gather quickly that the older man is paying the villagers where the younger boy lives to allow him to alter a suitable subset of their children to be fed only mulberry leaves, and so to produce, horribly, something valuable called silk. The story portrays powerfully how this changes the “mulberry boys” (and girls), and how the protagonist comes to grips with what this really means – it’s true horror, and yet leaves its characters some agency. (The lack of true agency is perhaps my main complaint about much traditional horror – what sort of story is it if the characters really never have a chance?)

Locus, January 2014

And finally I will mention a very strange Christmas story from Margo Lanagan, We Three Kids, the PS Publishing year-end special. This is the story of Yoseph and Mariam, who have just had a miraculous child – and the three very odd visitors who seem terribly interested in the child. That framework is familiar of course, but the visitors, who first come to a sandal-maker's house and who don't seem quite human, give things an aura of real strangeness and a hint of horror. As ever, Lanagan comes at things from an unusual angle indeed, effectively disquieting.

Locus, December 2017

Finally I must belatedly mention a new collection of stories (many previously collected) from Margo Lanagan, Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories. It’s is certainly a first-rate book, and it includes three new stories. My favorite of these is “Not All Ogre”, about Torro, who is half-ogre, and who comes to with two friends. We get hints of the menace of ogres the townspeople sense, and the changes undergone since the old prince was deposed – and of Torro resisting his ogreish urges. Then the story turns – it is a Sleeping Beauty retelling of a rather ghoulishly horrific, and effective, sort.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Today is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's birthday. She's been producing excellent SF -- and mysteries -- for some three decades. Here's a selection of my reviews of her short work in Locus.

Locus, March 2003

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's new story (Asimov's, April) also plays off 9/11, though in the end that's not its focus. The title, "June Sixteenth at Anna's", refers to a work of art: a recording, made from the future, of conversations at a restaurant in Manhattan, on June 16, 2001. Max's wife was one of the subjects of this recording. She has recently died, and Max reminisces about her modest fame, and then "watches" the time recording of her afternoon at Anna's. The modest Sfnal content serves to illuminate a very nicely done, very quiet story of an old man, love, and memory.

Locus, January 2004

Sci Fiction for December features a Lucius Shepard novella plus a Christmas novelette from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Rusch's "Nutball Season" is a pleasant sentimental seasonal story, about a divorced policeman who finds himself guarding a single mother who has threatened to shoot Santa Claus if he comes to her house. I think any reader can see where this story is going, but Rusch gets us to the end nicely.

Locus, September 2004

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Collateral Damage" is set in a future where children are required to take classes using time viewer technology to study war – in hopes that direct experience of its horrors will prevent future wars. A veteran teacher is charged with "inappropriate touching" of a four-year-old girl. The coy way these charges are presented and eventually explained weakens an otherwise thought-provoking piece.

Locus, January 2006

As with many magazines, Sci Fiction often featured Christmas-themed stories in December, and so we see Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Boz”, a sweet if slight piece about a solitary man minding the store, so to speak, on a generation starship, and his reaction to a Christmas present from the crew.

Locus, September 2009

“Broken Windchimes” (Asimov's, September) is about a male soprano who has been raised from early childhood to be a perfect singer for the alien Pané. It seems the Pané love human song, but a very limited version of it, and they have no tolerance whatsoever for imperfection. The main character happens to hear a recording of Louis Armstrong, and shortly thereafter, either corrupted by Armstrong’s highly imperfect voice, or corrupted by the inevitable effects of age, misses a note, which implausibly (to me) ends his career forever. He escapes to a space station with a broader cultural base than he has heretofore known, and, of course, discovers the blues. And a different style of performing … He also ends up learning some surprising secrets about the way children are recruited to be trained as Pané singers. The problem I had with the story, as I’ve suggested, is that at times I simply didn’t believe things. I didn’t believe the Pané fanaticism about perfect soulless singing. I didn’t believe the economic background hinted at. I was unconvinced by the narrator’s convenient enthrallment with the blues. But still – the manipulation works. I was moved by the story, it did affect me. It’s on the ragged edge – I could have just dismissed it in frustration, but Rusch held it together enough that, in the end, I liked it.

Locus, January 2010

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is above all a committed storyteller, and “The Possession of Paavo Deshin” (Analog, January/Febuary) is an absorbing story set in her Retrieval Artist future. Paavo is a young boy on the Moon, afraid of the “ghosts” he sees on occasion – which turn out to be links to his parents who abandoned him when they had to “disappear”. His loyalty is to his adopted parents – even if his father may be a criminal. And that loyalty will be tested. Nothing here is SFnally new enough to fascinate me, but the basic story is quite involving.

Locus, November 2010

The Asimov’s October-November double issue also features a couple of strong novellas. I have not previously liked Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Asimov’s stories that become her 2009 novel Diving into the Wreck, but they have been popular. So I was surprised to quite enjoy “Becoming One With the Ghosts”, set in the same universe, and featuring the main character of the novel, Boss, as an important secondary character. The main character here is Coop, Captain of the warship Ivoire, which has retreated to Sector Base V after a defeat at the hands of the enemy Quurzod. But Sector Base V seems impossibly altered. And soon they encounter strangers, who seem as surprised by the Ivoire’s presence as the Ivoire’s crew are surprised by the changes at the Base. What’s going on is easy enough to guess, but Rusch unspools it effectively -- I enjoyed, and I was tempted to go right off and read the novel.

Locus, February 2013

From the January Lightspeed ... Kristine Kathryn Rusch's “Purity Test” is a somewhat predictable but still affecting tale of a woman whose cruel father, convinced his wife had betrayed him, insists on tests of virginity for his son's prospective brides – and in the end his daughter (the narrator) must face such a test herself, but not before she learns to doubt its value.

Locus, November 2018

One more story this month is of interest to SF readers, especially those connected to fandom, though it’s not SF. “Unity Con” is the latest of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine about Spade, a Microsoft millionaire and a Secret Master of Fandom who helps conventions with financial issues, and Paladin, a young woman who investigates knottier problems, sometimes with Spade’s help. This time Paladin is at Unity Con, a convention intended to promote unity between the factions of fandom that were so noticeably divided by the Sad Puppy fiasco. There’s a dead body – of a fan and writer apparently modeled to an extent on Vox Day, and it looks like murder. Spade wants nothing to do with this mess, but is inveigled into helping, especially when it appears something funny has happened with the con’s finances. The story itself is pretty minor, the solution to the crimes a bit trivial and a bit implausible, but Rusch’s real goal here is to promote her vision of a way forward for fandom.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 61: The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey/Badge of Infamy, by Lester del Rey

Ace Double Reviews, 61: The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey/Badge of Infamy, by Lester del Rey (#76960, 1973, $0.95)

by Rich Horton

Leonard Knapp was born on June 2, 1915, though by the time he began publishing science fiction stories in 1938 he was using the name Lester del Rey, and continued to do so until his death in 1993. He told people various versions of his "true" name, typically a variation on "Ramon Felipe Alvarez-del Rey", and only after his estate was settled was it definitively settled that his birth name was Knapp. Throughout his career he used other pseudonyms as well, most notably Erik Van Lihn and Philip St. John. He made an early mark as a writer with stories like "Helen O'Loy" and "Nerves", each of which appeared in one of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies, but in later years he was often blocked. However, he had a major impact as an editor, at magazines like Space Science Fiction, and more notably at Ballantine Books, which SF/Fantasy imprint was renamed "Del Rey Books" after he and his wife Judy-Lynn. Lester Del Rey's most famous discovery was Terry Brooks -- he acquired and edited The Sword of Shannara and it became a smash bestseller. On the occasion of what would have been his 104th birthday, here's a look at his only Ace Double.

As I've noted before, many of the SFWA Grand Masters published in Ace Doubles. One of my goals is to review Ace Doubles by each of the Grand Masters who did have an Ace Double. Lester Del Rey is one of the interesting cases. His only Ace Double was one of the last. This book appeared in 1973, as the series was limping to a conclusion. Interestingly, this same pairing appeared earlier as a double book from a different publisher, one of the more unusual "double" series ever. This was the Galaxy Magabooks, put out by Galaxy magazine between 1963 and 1965. These "books" were in the format of issues of Galaxy, and they paired two short novels by the same author back to back (not dos-a-dos). The Sky Is Falling/Badge of Infamy was the first such book. The other two were Theodore Sturgeon's "... And My Fear is Great ..." paired with "Baby is Three" (two very short novels indeed, really indisputably novellas), and Jack Williamson's After World's End paired with The Legion of Time. (You can't fault the choice of authors -- two Grand Masters and the third author, Sturgeon, clearly the best of the three, not a Grand Master due only to a relatively early death.)

(Cover by Virgil Finlay(?))
Both of Del Rey's stories had appeared earlier in magazines. "Badge of Infamy" was in the June 1957 Satellite. The version in the 1973 Ace Double, presumably the same as the 1963 Galaxy Magabook, is about 33,000 words. The Ace Double includes a note to the effect that the 1957 publication was "shorter and earlier". Earlier is undeniably the case, but the story took up 88 pages in that issue of Satellite -- I haven't seen that issue, but for 88 pages to translate to about 33,000 words would be about right (counting illustrations). The Sky is Falling, on the other hand, is definitely revised from its earlier appearance. This was under the title "No More Stars" in Beyond Fantasy Fiction, July 1954 (a sister publication of Galaxy). "No More Stars" was published as by "Charles Satterfield", a pseudonym generally associated with Frederik Pohl. The references I have cite "No More Stars" as by Pohl and Del Rey in collaboration. It is about 17,500 words long -- The Sky is Falling is twice that length, a radical revision throughout. (Though the basic plot is virtually identical -- but there are many new scenes, and expansions to existing scenes.)

This caused me to wonder about stories that first appeared as collaborations, but were expanded to novels under only one name. Three other examples come immediately to mind: James Blish and Damon Knight's story "The Weakness of RVOG" became Blish's novel VOR, Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop's novelette "Tomorrow's Children" (Anderson's first published story, and Waldrop's only story -- and I wonder how much he really contributed) became Anderson's novel Twilight World, and Samuel R. Delany and James Sallis's novelette "They Fly at Çiron" became Delany's novel They Fly at Çiron. Anyone have any further examples?

 [I wrote this in 2004 or so -- while I stand by my critical evaluations below I've softened on my disputes with the Grand Master decision in this and other cases, partly because SFWA has gone to one per year instead of a maximum of six per decade.] I am on record as not approving of the decision to make Lester Del Rey a Grand Master. I think a tenuous case can be made based on his editorial influence. He was editor of several minor magazines in the 50s, under various names (and he used to publish his own work under pseudonyms, so that as "Philip St. John" he edited SF Adventures and published "Lester Del Rey", and as Lester Del Rey he edited Space and published "St. John". Much more importantly, he was very influential in the 70s and 80s as an editor for Ballantine, and the Ballantine imprint Del Rey was named jointly after he and his wife Judy Lynn. In particular, Lester Del Rey discovered Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara, edited it rigorously, and made it a bestseller. In so doing he was crucial to popularizing the Tolkien-influenced subgenre we now call EFP, for "extruded fantasy product". So much for Del Rey the editor -- but my main interest is always in the writer. As a writer he was responsible for two stories in the SF Hall of Fame -- one a very good novella about a nuclear accident, "Nerves"; the other a forgettable and schmaltzy story about a robot "wife", "Helen O'Loy". Besides those stories there were a few more decent efforts ("For I am a Jealous People", "The Day is Done", "To Avenge Man", not much else); and several novels, many of which showed a quirky imagination and a desire to explore unpopular ideas, but none of which are really memorable. He really didn't publish all that much considering the length of his career. To my mind, it simply doesn't add up to a Grand Master's quality of work, nor even quantity.

Still, Del Rey was a pro. And he was a decent writer, and a writer who generally made an effort to have something to say. So both the stories in this Ace Double are readable, and they have some intriguing aspects. But neither is particularly special.

(Cover by Alex Schomburg)
Badge of Infamy opens with "the pariah who was Dr. Daniel Feldman" in a cheap flophouse. He diagnoses a man dying, but can do nothing for him. It seems that medical care is strictly regulated in this future -- and that anyone who performs medical care, or, worse, research, outside of an approved hospital will be severely punished. If the patient survives -- or, indeed, has his life save, as (we learn) in the case that made Feldman a pariah -- the punishment is loss of license. If the patient dies, even if death was inevitable, capital punishment applies. It seems that Feldman was a rising star in the profession before treating a friend who was injured in the backwoods -- now he has been abandoned, even by his wife, a doctor herself.

The dead man in the flophouse turns out to have a certificate as a spaceship worker, and Feldman leaps at the chance to assume the other's identity and take a job on a ship heading for Mars. He is found out and expelled on Mars. There he learns that the maximally evil Earth guilds are squeezing the Martians (i.e. human colonists, -- the old Martians are long dead), and those Martians in the rebellious villages in particular. There is only one hospital on Mars, and so treatment is very hard to come by. Feldman becomes a secret doctor. He faces death if he is discovered, and his problem is exacerbated by the fact that his wife has come to Mars to set up a second hospital.

He discovers a long-incubating Martian plague, that likely has already spread to Earth. Unless a cure can be found, the populations of both planets will be decimated. But when he tries to alert authorities to this danger, he is arrested for performing illegal research. He is sentenced to die.

Well -- what do you think? Will he really die? Will his psychotic wife realize that her support of the psychotic rules about medical research is stupid? Will she have to get the plague first to realize her mistake? Will the Martians rebel? C'mon -- we all know the answers! The basic problem with the story is that the bad guys are so absurdly evull that there is no believing in them. As 50s SF adventure it works OK -- it's quite competently done, reads swiftly, holds the interest, but it doesn't really make much sense at all.

(Cover by Vidmer)
The Sky Is Falling is on the whole a more ambitious and interesting work, though in the final analysis
not really successful either. Dave Hanson wakes up in pain. His last memory is of a bulldozer at a construction site in Canada falling onto him. If he has been saved, this hospital room seems strange, with people making strange gestures and wearing strange clothes, and talking about strange things.

He eventually learns that he is in some other world. He has died and been reconstituted for his engineering talent -- it appears that this world is a Ptolemaic universe, complete with a physical sky on which the stars and planets and sun are fixed. The sky is cracked, and they need someone to fix it. Unfortunately, Dave Hanson isn't the right guy -- his uncle David Hanson is the engineering genius, Dave is just a computer geek.

But he makes a brave try, then is kidnapped by the opposition, which believes that it is destiny that the sky crack open, and the world "hatch" from its egg. He is accompanied by a beautiful woman who misperformed a spell and ended up spelling herself in love with him by mistake. (Alas that she is a "certified and registered virgin".) It's not clear which side is right and which wrong, but perhaps it doesn't matter, until it occurs to someone that Dave's computer knowledge, combined with magical principles and an orrery, might actually be enough to repair the sky.

This is also pretty goofy stuff, but also kind of original. It gets points for the originality, for trying something new. But in execution it is sort of slapdash, and never really convincing.