Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kim Newman

Kim Newman turns 60 today, beating me to that milestone by just a couple of months. He's written a lot of really fun SF/Horror, often with a bit of a Steampunk/Alternate History angle. Here's a set of my reviews of his work, mostly from Locus, but one from Tangent!

Review of New Worlds (from Tangent #20/21)

Another strong alternate historical piece is "Great Western" by Kim Newman. Newman's alternate history features an England where feudal organizations have continued into the present day. A young girl lives with the widow of a man murdered by the local squire, and the two try to resist the land grabbing of said villain, who is aided by the corrupt local law enforcement. A mysterious stranger on a motorcycle rides into town, and helps them in their struggle. The fun is in the explicit parallels with Westerns (especially Shane) and how the material of the traditional Western is transposed to fit this alternate England (called, naturally enough, "Wessex" (after Hardy).)

Locus, November 2004

An oddly middling month at Sci Fiction – all the stories are fine work, none thrilled me. Perhaps the top story is Kim Newman's "Soho Golem" is one of his Richard Jeperson stories. Jeperson is a dandyish man charged with investigating psychic anomalies. In this case, with his long-suffering policeman partner Fred Regent, he looks into the mysterious death of a corrupt cop involved in the porn industry. A psychic manifestation of sorts seems to be after a number of local porn bigwigs, as well as an anti-porn crusader – all who have a long dead beauty named Pony-Tail in their past. The story is fun and intriguing and has a nice twist – good solid work.

Locus, March 2005

Finally I ought to mention a delightful set of stories found in an unexpected place: the BBC Cult website ( These are five Sherlock Holmes pastiches, mostly taking a rather slant view of the Holmes canon. ... Kim Newman's "A Shambles in Belgravia" is told by Sebastian Moran, as his partner-in-crime Professor Moriarty is recruited by Irene Adler to help her with a sensitive problem concerning the Ruritanian succession.

Review of The Fair Folk (Locus, April 2005)

The book's longest story is also its best: "The Gypsies in the Wood", by Kim Newman. Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club investigates the disappearance of two children, and the reappearance of one – Davey Harvill, seemingly aged decades. He manages to find the Davey's sister, but she seems changed herself. Eight years later, journalist Kate Reed is covering the planned opening of an exhibition run by Satterthwaite Bulge, the publisher of a popular magazine of treacly fairy stories, distinguished only by remarkable illustrations. Kate runs into Charles, and quickly gathers that something odd is going on – the exhibition seems somehow haunted. Charles reveals that he is still obsessed with the Harvill case – and that Davey is the sort of idiot savant illustrator for Bulge's publications. After another disaster – an accidental death – Kate and Charles track down the Harvills, including Davey's strange sister, seemingly unaged after several years. The exhibition will be the focus for the unraveling of the mystery of what really happened to Davey and his sister eight years previously – but not before Davey's cousin Dicky is led into danger himself. The story combines the mystery, menace, and wonder of the darker sort of fairy with a pair of engaging human adults who stand outside "faery", as it were: a fast moving story, funny, romantic, moving.

Review of Adventure Vol. 1 (Locus, October 2005)

Kim Newman’s “Richard Riddle, Boy Detective” is related to his Diogenes Club stories (most notably “The Gypsies in the Wood” from earlier this year), though it’s perhaps less substantial. It tells of three children who get on the trail of a supposed French Spy, and of a local anti-evolutionist fanatic who seems to have a secret.

Locus, November 2005

Much of October at SCI FICTION is devoted to a Diogenes Club story by Kim Newman, “The Serial Murders”. This is about the 70s version of the Club, featuring in particular Richard Jeperson. This time he is investigating a series of murders that seem somehow to have been “predicted” by a popular British soap opera. Throw in a comely professor studying soap operas, the wicked and wickedly portrayed cast and crew of the series, and a solution that is nicely non-supernatural though the supernatural still plays a role … Newman is a very entertaining writer who has been at top form for several long stories this year.

Review of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Locus, April 2008)

Paul McAuley and Kim Newman offer “Prisoners of the Action”, a downright goofy story about the aftermath of an odd alien invasion, with a man investigating strange happenings on the Indian Ocean island where the alien prisoners of war have been confined.

Locus, October 2008

And “The Red Planet League”, by Kim Newman, is the only story in Gaslight Grimoire not to feature Holmes at all. Rather, it is told by Sebastian Moran, about Professor Moriarty taking revenge on a prat of a rival astronomer. The plot is trivial and rather silly, but the narration is delightfully comic.

Locus, December 2010

Mysteries of the Diogenes Club is a collection of some of Kim Newman’s delightful stories of a British private club that investigates unusual events. The book includes one new novella, and a very good one it is: “Kentish Glory”, subtitled “The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School”. It’s about a girls’ school, sometime shortly after World War I, where Amy Thomsett is sent after her mother finds her sleeping on the ceiling. It seems many of the girls at Drearcliff have “Talents”, Amy’s being levitation. The story touches on the usual school story elements: the bullies, the forbidding headmistress, the daft teachers, the obscure rules – all laid out in Newman’s witty prose. Amy soon makes some fast friends, and some vicious enemies. The plot turns on the kidnapping of one of Amy’s friends: it’s mostly a frolic, though with darker elements, and it hardly matters anyway, the story is simply great fun.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of M. C. Pease

M. C. Pease published about 20 stories between 1949 and 1957, then fell silent. Apparently he kept writing, without success: at any rate I have seen a report (second-hand, or third hand actually) from a former F&SF slushreader of seeing in the slush a story from Pease as late as the early '70s. Pease’s main market was Astounding, and secondarily Robert A. W. Lowndes’ magazines, though he also had pieces in If, Beyond, Fantastic Universe, and Science Fiction Adventures. I have read several Pease stories, and have found them sometimes interesting failures -- the ideas are sometimes intriguing and original, but the execution tends to fall short.

So, who was Pease, really? Biographical details were hard to come by. So I solicited the help of an email list I subscribe to, full of experts on short fiction in magazines, especially SF. And we did some digging, and came up with Marshall Carleton Pease III (1920-2001). He had a B. A. from Yale in Chemistry, and an M. A. from Princeton, and eventually a Ph. D., I'm not sure from where. Though his degrees were in Chemistry, his work was in electronics, beginning with radar countermeasures and ending up working at SRI in Computer Science, particularly early research into parallel processing: interesting stuff (to me, anyway, as that's my field). He published lots of scientific papers and at least one textbook. His father was a prominent pediatrician. The really cool detail is what links this M. C. Pease to the SF writer -- a letter from John W. Campbell to Isaac Asimov, suggesting he write a story about an idea that Pease had had but felt he couldn't do justice to. Asimov never wrote the story, but Campbell's letter mentions that Pease was at Sylvania at that time (late '50s), as was Marshall C. Pease the Yale/Princeton grad.

I find writers of this sort interesting, and worth remembering even if I wouldn't, say, include any of their stories in a prospective Best Forgotten Storis of the 1950s anthology. So, on the occasion of what would have been Marshall Pease's 99th birthday, here's what I've written about a few of the Pease stories I have read.

Astounding, August 1951

(Cover by H. R. van Dongen)
"City of the Phoenix" by M. C. Pease is a strange mess of a story, with the occasional hint of something interesting that makes it readable enough. Ter Ankhdart (yes, Pease attended the Isaac Asimov school of character naming) is a young Socio-Logician who comes to a planet on which all the humans have moved into an enclosed city, because they created an atomic power plant that ran wild. An expedition from the Second Galactic Civilization has investigated this planet as part of the desperate search to find a weapon that will stop the alien Slugs who are overrunning human civilization. But the planet seems hopeless, with just this remnant of the First Civilization, at an apparent tech level of 7 -- current Galactic Civilization is at level 12. (The story is full of fairly meaningless socio-babble like that.) However, the exploring spaceship, trying to lift off after giving up, finds that their power plant is being drained. Perhaps this is evidence of a weapon that can stop the slugs?

Ter enters the city, and encounters skepticism and resistance from the already present workers, especially the thuggish leader, Lar. But he also attracts interest from a pretty redhead named Triccy. (Pronounced Tricky or Trixie? Who knows?) Before long Triccy and Ter are exploring the city, meeting the listless, apparently hypnotized, residents. And Ter explains the the City, to have lasted for 2500 years, must be maintained by humans. But what humans? Not these listless residents. And what of the terror they feel when asked where they lived when they were young? ... Anyway, Ter has an answer (not a terrible one), and with that a solution to the problem of the Weapon (a much less plausible one.) And, by the way, the shy and apparently virginal awkward nerd Ter and the lovely Triccy are inevitably a couple by the end ... despite some really icky sexual dynamics ... Actually, in the final analysis, a pretty silly and mostly annoying story.

Dynamic, October 1953

M. C. Pease is a not terribly good, and not terribly well known, writer from (mostly) the early '50s whose work I still find fairly interesting at times. "Temple of Despair" is not great stuff but mildly interesting. A planet devoted to producing a dangerous drug which is valuable as a cancer cure is about to be abandoned, as another drug has been found. An agent arranges to be dropped there to investigate social conditions -- no one has ever understood how the ruling priest keep the population in line, given that harvesting the plant in question is terribly dangerous. The agent, a very ugly man, poses as a priest (rather too easily), and learns that a mysterious "Release" happens every so often. He sneaks into the Temple and encounters a beautiful but apparently evil woman, who seems to be the chief priest. He notices that all the top priests seem to be young and good-looking. He manages to learn the true nature of the "Release", which explains everything, reasonably enough. No classic, not even very good, but better than it might have been. I'll explain the not too surprising secret at the end, after spoiler space.

Oh, and the SPOILER for the Pease story --

the priests have an alien mind transfer machine. During the Release they force everybody to more or less randomly switch minds, which messes up any plans for revolution etc. Plus the priests use their control and understanding of the process to pick handsome young bodies for their own. Of course at the end the ugly man destroys the machine -- but also manages to (by accident) switch his mind into the body of the beautiful young priestess.

Science Fiction Stories #1, 1953

The next story is by M. C. Pease: "The Way of Decision" (10700 words). I've read a couple of his Astounding stories, and while they weren't precisely good I do recall that they were at least mildly ambitious, in terms of ideas considered.

And that's a fair description of "The Way of Decision". This is a story about group marriage. I'm not sure how early group marriage was treated seriously in SF -- but I imagine this story is a fairly early treatment. The other interesting feature of this story is that the new social organization is looked at in economic terms. In essence, group marriages, called here "clans", are economic units. They specialize in certain types of work, and hire out as a group to do these jobs. The marriages are certainly at least as important economically as they are for any sexual or familial reason. The story is set perhaps a decade or two after this became at least mildly common thing, but prejudice against clans is still widespread. The clan in question is considering whether to accept a new wife. She is pretty but perhaps has little else to recommend her. Except -- she is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. A man who has been opposed to hiring clans to do work for his companies. It seems clear that the clan will get a major new contract from this man if his daughter joins them -- but is this a good reason to accept her? The story itself is very static -- lots of talking and philosophizing, not very convincing characterization, and an ambiguously presented conclusion. It doesn't work all that well as a story, and I'm not terribly convinced by the economic issues or the general sociology, but I thought it a brave try and at least interesting for the questions it tries to ask.

Astounding, December 1954

M. C. Pease's "Eight Seconds" asks what humans can do to win a space war with aliens who have just slightly better reaction time -- so that they react 8 seconds more quickly than humans in a space battle. I wasn't convinced either by the general setup, or by the solution, though it is a cutish twist. In a way, I was reminded of Robert Sheckley's "The Battle", also from Astounding.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

"Ripeness" is not one of M. C. Pease's best stories, though it still shows ambition. Philip Reynolds is in charge of a computer that has allowed a dictator to control the world -- and Reynolds has allowed this, seeing it, at the beginning, as the only way to help the world out of chaos. But the dictator’s rule is getting harsher and harsher, and Reynolds is pushed to consider rebelling when his brother, an opponent of the dictator, is arrested and likely to be executed. It’s a bit talky, and the computer bits are totally implausible, but it does try for moral seriousness, if in the end not quite selling its resolution.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hugo Ballot Thoughts, Short Fiction, 2019

Hugo Ballot Thoughts, Short Fiction, 2019

Here’s a look at the Hugo Ballot for the short fiction categories. I’ve read all the novelettes and short stories, but not the novels, alas. I don’t have much to say about the other categories – though I will say, I don’t think Archive of Our Own should have been nominated in the Best Related Work category because to me it doesn’t really fit that category. And the argument “What category does it fit?” doesn’t hold water, because there’s no law that says there has be a Hugo for everything, even if it seems like that sometimes. Indeed, I think this is a case where a committee-decided Special Award would have been quite appropriate.

Short Fiction


I am behind on my novella reading, so I’ll just give a quicky summary. Here’s the list:

Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson ( Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Of these only Artificial Condition was on my nomination ballot, but I didn’t get to The Black God’s Drums until later, and it would have been on my ballot. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach struck me as impressively ambitious – probably the most ambitious of the nominees – but I think the ending is a mess. Still a story worth reading. The Tea Master and the Detective is nice work, not quite brilliant. And, I say with guilt, I haven’t read Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I suspect will be very fine work.

Then there’s Binti: The Night Masquerade, which I couldn’t finish. Partly this was simply deadline pressure – I was bored, and I had other stuff I HAD to read, so I gave it up. But, well, Binti was not without interest, but ultimately kind of a mess; and Binti: Home was downright awful, so my expectations were not high. Honestly, I am at a nearly complete loss as to why these stories have been Hugo nominees. But, let's be fair -- I didn't finish the story, so it might have gotten a lot better by the end. (Though some Hugo Ballot reviews I trust suggest otherwise.)

I’ll try to get to Beneath the Sugar Sky, but pending that, The Black God’s Drums probably gets my top vote, and Artificial Condition second. And I won’t think it a bad award if anything but Binti: The Night Masquerade wins. And, seriously, how could people ignore Time Was, by Ian McDonald?


The novelette list:

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander ( Publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

None of these were on my nomination ballot, but they are all worthwhile stories. I still think my ballot is better: Dale Bailey’s “The Donner Party”, James Patrick Kelly’s “Grace’s Family”, Alex Jeffers’ “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death”, Kelly Robson’s “Intervention”, Karen Russell’s “Orange World”, and James Sallis’ “Dayenu”. Most of these are understandable non-nominees – “Orange World” (The New Yorker), “Dayenu” (LCRW), and “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death” (Giganotosaurus) all come from venues that just don’t get enough notice from the nominating community. And for that matter, so does “The Donner Party” (F&SF) – the current nominating constituency (taken as a whole) simply won’t consider stories from print magazines, which is a disgrace, quite frankly. Of these, “Dayenu” in particular is remarkable, and it’s a shame no one saw it.

That said, the two website stories, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” and “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, are very very good, and could have fit on my ballot easily. Connolly’s story tells of Saffron, the Confection Taster, and her husband Danny, the Pastry Chef, who are forced to serve the “Traitor King”. The title banquet features a series of dishes, all of which are arranged to recall past events – and by this means the back story of the Traitor King’s ascension is revealed. The ending is perhaps a bit predictable, but the journey to it is very effective. Gregory’s story tells of a sort of environmental apocalypse, but not any of those we have faced or are now facing. Instead, in a ‘50s movie sort of way, alien spores seed the Earth in 1975, and the story follows LT from boyhood to senescence, as he and his family battle to understand the new ecology, and perhaps to find a way to adapt. The story combines an elegiac feel with optimism in powerful fashion.

“The Thing About Ghost Stories” is really good as well, about a folklorist who specialized in ghost stories, and her relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The relationship (naturally for this particular story), continues after her mother’s death. Very fine, emotionally true and affecting.

The Only Harmless Great Thing has generated the most buzz of any of these novelettes, and has already copped the Nebula. I admire Brook Bolander’s writing – and this novelette is well-written – but it just didn’t work for me. Sometimes I see a piece get an award nomination and I think “What were they thinking?”. On other occasions – certainly in this case – I think I understand the nomination – this is an impassioned story, a well-written one, it’s about something important. But it doesn’t hold together, it doesn’t seem essentially true to me. It tells of an alternate history in which the Radium Girls (who were poisoned by working on watch dials without protection) end up training intelligent elephants to replace them (there’s a specific nod to Topsy, an elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison); and also tells of a future in which elephants appear to rule, and a woman and and the elephants communicate about nuclear waste. (It occurs to me that I have had terrible luck with SF stories about elephants (or elephant-like beings) – these include dreadful novels like Fletcher Pratt’s Invaders from Rigel, Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall, and Stephen Baxter’s Silverhair; plus a dreadful short story in Mike Resnick’s “The Elephants on Neptune”. (The only good example I can think of is Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth.))

Zen Cho’s “If at First you Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” is, I think, best described as pleasant fun, about an imugi that wants to become a dragon. It tries every millennium or so, and its initial failures are amusing. Then it blames a depressed Ph. D. student on its failure, goes to try to eat her, and becomes entranced – spends a lifetime with the human. It’s not a surprise what happens to the imugi after she dies. I mean, this is a nice story, a fun read. But, I just don’t see Hugo winner.

Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” has a fairly familiar setup – a struggling tribe trying to survive in a tough world, with some help from what seems perhaps a crashed spaceship – complete with an ancient hologram that’s regarded as a dangerous ghost. Heller works some nice changes on this – the tribe is aliens, though the tech (and the ghost) seem human; and much of the interest inheres to the well described narrator … Again, this is nice work, and again, I didn’t quite seem what separates it from a raft of fine, well done stories that aren’t on the Hugo ballot.

The first three stories I mentioned (by Connolly, Gregory, and Kritzer) will be at the top of my ballot – in an order yet to be determined. Then the other three, with the position of the Bolander story depending on how many points it gets for ambition (clearly it's more ambitious than the Heller or Cho stories) versus success.

Short Story

The nominees are:

“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Of these, Alix E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” and Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” are the two that appear in my Best of the Year volume, which is a good clue that they’re the stories at the top of my ballot. The fact is, the rest of these stories are all pretty good, so in no way does this list shame the Hugo nomination process. That said, there are several short stories I thought superior to the others that made the final ballot – and, hey, that’s the way it goes! If we all liked the same things, it would be a dreary world. That said, these stories deserve more notice: “The Buried Giant”, by Lavie Tidhar; “Kindred”, by Peter Watts; “A Portrait of Salai”, by Hannu Rajaniemi; “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish”, by Octavia Cade; “The Hydraulic Emperor”, by Arkady Martine; “The Heart of Owl Abbas”, by Kathleen Jennings; and “Carouseling”, by Rich Larson.

So, anyway, my Hugo ballot, with comments. Note first that places 3 through 5 might easily be shuffled before submission.

1. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” – This one is pretty special. It’s told by a librarian (“There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches” – no prizes for guessing which category our narrator fits), as she encounters a teenaged boy who becomes obsessed with a particular pretty bad fantasy novel. The boy is obviously in a difficult family situation – and perhaps escape is what he needs. And witches know ways to escape … but that’s against the rules, and librarians are rule followers. The story is at the same time a bit cute, almost arch, and yet grounded and quite moving.

2. “The Court Magician” – This tells of the career of a young boy selected to learn magic. And so he does, over time, mastering sleight-of-hand, always wanting more, until he is finally offered real magic. Which must be in service of the Regent of his land, and which comes at a cost – a terrible cost to himself, and, he eventually realizes, possibly to others as well. It is in a way another variant on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a story Pinsker riffed on even more explicitly last year with “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”). Strong and morally effective.

3. “STET”, by Sarah Gailey – A strong story, intriguingly structured, best suited, perhaps, for online reading, though it certainly can be read on paper – it consists of an abstract, several citations, and editorial comments with rejoinders by the author. I sort of don’t want to discuss it more, as that might blunt its impact. It’s in a sense a trolley problem story, dealing with autonomous cars.

4. “The Secret Lives of Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” – another differently structured story, detailing the imagined lives of nine people whose teeth ended up in George Washington’s mouth. It’s strong stuff, very worth reading, necessary reading indeed, engaging powerfully with our nation’s “original sin” and the often underacknowledged culpability of our Founding Fathers with that sin. Listed lower relative to other stories because, well, I like “story”, and I didn’t think this had enough of that. But it didn’t mean to have any more “story” than it did, for good and sufficient reasons. So – not an auctorial failing – but still a reason it’s not higher on my ballot.

5. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” –  This is a wise and funny story which tells of the seduction of the title woman by a series of creatures of Faerie – an elf, a selkie, a pooka – and their mutual disappointment as she enjoys their company but fails to pine when they desert her – indeed, she marries the blacksmith.

6. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” – this is about what it says, pretty much. The Prince, who is (all too predictably) remarkably dumb and cruel, hunts the sisters, and captures and imprisons one – with easy to guess eventual results. As I say, it’s quite predictable in general shape, but that’s a bit unfair to it, because it’s a cleverly told and quite funny story. It fits with a few stories I’ve mentioned – a good story, one I’m glad I read, that doesn’t quite seem to me to be Hugo material.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Today is Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's birthday. I've enjoyed much of his fiction over the past decade, both on his own and in collaboration (with the likes of Adam-Troy Castro, Thoraia Dyer, Alex Shvartsman, and of course Robert Silverberg. His book with Silverberg (Traveller of Worlds) was a Best Related Book Hugo nominee. His fiction can be searing "hard" SF or almost whimsical fantasy. Here are my reviews of his work from Locus:

Locus, September 2015

Newish writer Alvaro Zinos-Amaro contributes a very cool story about future art (and  critics!) to the September Analog, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”. Palsgrave Greshmenn is the leading collector of “Evolutive art”. He is visited by a much younger, and suitably deferential, collector, who has a job for him – culling a collection of another man of its inferior works. But when there he discovers a remarkable property of the collection … There's a twist coming of course, and it's intelligent and Sfnally interesting, combining questions of the rights of AIs (or EIs), ideas about the (quite interesting) nature of the postulated art form, and of course the nature of the main character.

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 2019

Galaxy’s Edge in January is one of those issues which is readable from top to bottom, but never quite outstanding. ... Also interesting, but in the end a bit thin, is Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s “All Show, No Go”, about a man who inherits an unexpectedly sophisticate AI from his estranged father. The AI has the ability to perfectly duplicate things, including rare pulp magazines, and the man and the AI use that ability to make a fortune – but, of course, there are unexpected consequences.

Locus, November 2018

Shades Within Us is an anthology devoted to “Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders”, and almost predictably, the better stories are those less rigorously meeting the anthology’s theme. ... By contrast, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s “Shades of Void” is all about the Science Fictional element – and still all about the personal side, as a man tells the story of his lover, whom he helped achieve his goal of using AI-amplification to explore stellar structures – at the cost of his health.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Birthday Review: Dragon Venom, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Today is Lawrence Watt-Evans' birthday. Lawrence has written a ton of very enjoyable fantasy, and a fair amount of pretty cool SF as well. I reviewed A Young Man Without Magic on this date last year ... one of my real favorites among his books, alas, first in a series that was aborted when his publisher abandoned it. Today I review another book, the concluding book in a satisfying series that, to say true, I had higher hopes for after the first book.

Dragon Venom is the conclusion to Lawrence Watt-Evans' fantasy trilogy that began with Dragon Weather (1999) and continued with The Dragon Society (2001). Overall I think the trilogy well worth reading. I will say, though, that I thought the first book clearly the best. This conclusion is a satisfactory finish to the series, resolving the main issues quite well, leaving open potential further stories in the world but leaving no requirement whatsoever for a continuation. The idea that resolve the main conflict is logical and convincing (in context), though I did think the protagonist arrived at his solution a bit easily, in some ways. The main problem with this book is that the action is a little disjointed, and that while there are new ideas introduced there is nothing as generally intriguing as the introduction of the whole situation in book 1. Also, the nature of the hero, albeit well displayed, is such as to leach some emotional satisfaction from his success.

As the book opens the hero, Arlian, is leading a group into a dragon cave to exterminate four more dragons, in his continuing quest to find and kill every dragon in the world. For Arlian is a dragonheart, made so by ingesting a mixture of dragon venom and human blood while he witnessed dragons destroying his boyhood village. Dragonhearts live for 1000 years, and have unnatural strength, charisma, and healing ability. But at the end of their life they give "birth", in a way, to a dragon that has been developing in their hearts for all this time. Also, they are unable to feel human emotions very strongly -- love and joy are closed off to them. In the previous books, Arlian discovered a way to kill dragons, and a way to remove the taint of the dragon from dragonhearts. Now, under the sponsorship of the ruler of the Lands of Man, the Duke of Manfort, he is tracking down dragons based on records of destroyed villages, hoping to have himself cleansed of his taint, along with every other dragonheart, once his quest is complete.

But there are problems. For one thing, there are hints that some of the dragons are wise to Arlian's quest, and are hiding themselves more securely. For another, most of the other dragonhearts are loath to abandon their long lifespan, and they have defied the Duke and moved to another city, and begun to cooperate with the dragons. Thirdly, the dragons, enraged by Arlian's actions, have taken to attacking many more villages than previously, despite Arlian's attempt to spread the knowledge of how to kill dragons, and the equipment to do so, as widely as possible. And finally, worst of all, it appears that Wild Magic from beyond the Lands of Men is encroaching on these lands -- it seems that the dragons, which are consist of tightly-bound magic, by their very existence shielded the Lands of Men from the Wild Magic. And the fewer dragons there are, the less shielding.

This last problem forces the Duke of Manfort to order Arlian to cease his attacks on dragons. Arlian, frustrated, decides to head to the border areas and beyond, in hopes of learning something about the wild magic. There he encounters wizards and other, stranger, magical creatures, and begins to formulate some ideas about the nature of magic. Back home he begins some rather controversial experiments, hoping to find a way to contain magic in a more benign form than dragons, while retaining the shielding aspects. But the dragons, and their representatives, the rogue dragonhearts, are not about to take this lightly ...

The solution is fairly logical, and pretty well set up in the overall trilogy. As I suggested, I did feel that perhaps Arlian came upon it just a bit conveniently. Also, his experiments are, er, ethically dicey, to say the least -- it all makes sense in the context of the books, but it does give one pause. So, a book I enjoyed, part of a trilogy which is certainly worth reading -- but not a brilliant work.

Birthday Review: The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

Birthday Review: The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

a review by Rich Horton

For M. John Harrison's birthday today I've resurrected this review which I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup almost exactly 15 years ago, in July of 2004.

(Cover by David Lloyd)
The Course of the Heart is a lovely book, first published in 1992, but perhaps emblematic of Harrison's relative commercial obscurity it didn't get an American edition until 2004.

Actually, here's what I wrote in introducing my post, which covered three prominent UK writers of fantastika who had established reputations outside the SF/F field:

Finally, Harrison, in my opinion the best of these three writers, is by far the least successful commercially. He established a mild reputation in the SF field in the early 70s with his first few novels, particularly several novels and stories set in an "industrial fantasy" world based around the city of Viriconium (or Uraconium, or Vira Con, or ... its name was as ambiguous as its nature). Best known of these is The Pastel City, which I discovered at random in the mid-70s and quite loved. Harrison's later novels, however, sometimes failed to find a US publisher. To my knowledge, Climbers has never been published in the US, and The Course of the Heart, from 1992, is only now being published here by the small press Night Shade Books. (His later novels Signs of Life (1997) and Light (2003) [plus its later sequels], did receive fairly timely US editions.) Harrison's "mainstream reputation" is based more on his very "literary" instincts, though most of his work is either outright SF or slipstream (or, in a term Harrison coined himself, "New Weird"). I believe Climbers may be pure mainstream (it is the only one of his novels I haven't read). The Course of the Heart has strong fantastical elements, but a very mainstream (or "literary") feel -- a bit reminiscent, perhaps, of Angela Carter.

I'm going to gloss what I wrote a bit in light of the 15 intervening years. First, I probably overstated Harrison's "obscurity" -- while it's undeniable that he's less prominent than Banks or Pratchett (both of whom, sadly, died fairly young within the past several years,) he's not "obscure", though the success of his trilogy beginning with Light certainly expanded his reputation, particularly with the SF field. Secondarily, I've become uneasy with the lazy habit I had back then of categorizing books as "literary" instead of "SF-ish", though Harrison is a writer with a broader readership in "literary" circles than many SF writers.

Anyway, on to The Course of the Heart. The narrator had apparently completed some mysterious magical act with two other young people during his university years. This act is never revealed (somewhat frustratingly) but it involved contact with another "plane of existence" (my words) called the Pleroma. It wasn't successful, and it seems to have mentally damaged the other two people: Lucas Medlar and Pam Stuyvesant. The narrator has perhaps (or not?) escaped unscathed. Lucas and Pam marry, but can never really settle, and eventually divorce. Pam is an epileptic, always difficult, and eventually gets cancer.

The story winds back and forth in time. The narrator spends some time involved with the sinister older man, Yaxley, who initiated the original magical experiment, and who is trying further experiments, including a vile act involving incest. None of the magic really seems to work, but it all seems to involve contact with incomprehensible things. The narrator also keeps in touch with Pam and Lucas, even after they divorce. His own life is conventional -- an ordinary, fairly successful, job; a sexy wife, a daughter. Things finally come to a head with Pam's cancer, and her decline and death.

Intertwined with all this is a travel narrative cum history of an imaginary Eastern European country. This is supposedly written by one "Michael Ashman", but we soon gather that this is all an invention of Lucas Medlar, with some degree of cooperation from Pam. This country is perhaps called "the Coeur" -- the Heart -- and it seems somehow connected with the Pleroma. It was destroyed by invasion, but in Lucas's conception, the Empress left descendants, who continued to carry some essence of the Coeur, suppressed for the most part. Eventually leading to -- of course -- Pam Stuyvesant. What does all this mean? I am not sure, but it rewards thinking about. I should add that the fictional Michael Ashman spent time in Czechoslovakia just prior to World War II, and patronized a Tarot-telling Gypsy whore, who surely died in a concentration camp -- thus bringing the central 20th century atrocity to the table. I don't at all know what to make of the novel, but it is beautifully written, very evocative, intriguing, erotic, sad -- a striking work.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 114: Daybreak -- 2250 A.D., by Andre Norton/Beyond Earth's Gates, by Lewis Padgett and C. L. Moore

Ace Double Reviews, 114: Daybreak -- 2250 A.D., by Andre Norton/Beyond Earth's Gates, by Lewis Padgett and C. L. Moore (#D-69, 1954, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

(Covers by Harry Barton and ?)
Here's an Ace Double pairing what should have been the first two women to become SFWA Grand Masters. Alas, C. L. Moore's family (that of her second husband, that is), who were apparently quite hostile to science fiction, refused to allow her to be given the award shortly before her death. To be more fair to them, their stated motive was that Moore by that time was suffering from dementia, and was in no shape to either understand the award, or to tolerate any ceremony about it. Fair enough, I dare say, but I think something could have been worked out. This was probably some time between 1978 and 1983. In 1984, Andre Norton became the first woman to be officially named an SFWA Grand Master, though in my mind, C. L. Moore will always have pride of place. (No disrepect to Norton, who after all was a year younger than Moore, nor to Leigh Brackett, 3 years younger than Norton, who died in 1978, probably a few years before she'd have had a chance to be named. (Note that Brackett was just 63, and to date the youngest people to be named SFWA Grand Masters are Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman, who were 66.))

One reason I bought this Ace Double is oddly personal. A number of years ago my brother-in-law, knowing I know a lot about science fiction, told me about a book he read when he was a kid. Or partly read, I should say. It seems his father (my father-in-law, though he died before I ever met my wife), found him reading it, took it away from him, ripped it in half and threw it out, telling him he didn't want his son reading any trashy Sci-Fi stuff, or words to that effect. My brother-in-law didn't remember the title or author, just the cover -- a guy poling a raft through ruins. Somehow that triggered a memory in me -- I was sure I knew the book.

As you'll have guessed looking at the cover image displayed here, that book was Daybreak -- 2250 A.D. Probably a later single edition, not this Ace Double. I went to my favorite used book store a couple of days later, and sure enough, I found a copy of a later edition of Daybreak -- 2250 A.D. with the right cover. I presented it to my brother-in-law the next time I saw him, to gratifying astonishment. (Incidentally, I can't find out who painted that cover. And later Ace editions, from the '70 onward, have a different cover that is blatantly and crudely copied from the original.)

(Cover by Nicholas Mordvinoff)
Of course I had to buy my own copy, and of course it had to be the Ace Double edition! Actually, I read Daybreak -- 2250 A.D. some while ago. The novel was first published in 1952 by Harcourt, Brace, as Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. The Ace Double was the first paperback edition, in 1954, and the title was changed, with the original title given in parentheses as simply Star Man's Son. Later Ace editions retained the Daybreak -- 2250 A.D. title, while other hardcover editions were called Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D., and a number of non-Ace paperback editions went with the shorter Star Man's Son. The most recent editions seem to be a Baen omnibus pairing it with the 1975 novel No Night Without Stars, and using the Daybreak -- 2250 A.D. version of the title. Possibly, then, that was Norton's preference.

I don't actually remember the novel that well, though I do remember enjoying it. It's about a young man in a post-Apocalyptic world who wants to be a "Star Man" like his father -- essentially, someone who visits the old radioactive cities to try to salvage valuable stuff. But he is rejected -- perhaps because of his white hair (inherited from his mother), and he ends up going off by himself (well, with his cat with whom he has a telepathic link) and meeting up with another loner from a different tribe ... and in the end there's a confrontation with the mutated "beast people", and then a "conceptual breakthrough" sort of revelation. But, really, better to check out what Judith Tarr wrote about it at After the Apocalypse: Andre Norton's Daybreak -- 2250 A.D.

(Cover by Earle Bergey)
On to Beyond Earth's Gates. This is bylined "Lewis Padgett and C. L. Moore", which is curious because "Lewis Padgett" is generally regarded as a collaborative pseudonym for Moore and her husband Henry Kuttner. I do suspect, though, that the Padgett pseudonym was probably more often used for stories in which Kuttner was the primary author (while I suspect "Lawrence O'Donnell" stories were more often primarily by Moore.) And I say that, and it's important to remember that Kuttner and Moore claimed they often couldn't remember and couldn't tell who wrote which parts of some of their stories. That said, Beyond Earth's Gates was first published in the September 1949 issue of Startling Stories as "The Portal in the Picture", a complete novel by Henry Kuttner. I suspect the text of the Startling publication is essentially the same as the Ace Double.

Kuttner and Moore wrote some truly brilliant SF, but, sad to say, Beyond Earth's Gates doesn't qualify as such. It's told by Eddie Burton, a rising young Broadway actor. Lorna Maxwell is a "third-rate young ginmill singer" who has been pestering Eddie to help her get a leg up in her career. He doesn't want anything to do with her, but one night she comes over to his place -- and disappears. And of course Eddie is soon suspected in her disappearance.

Mixed in with this is Eddie's recollection of his Uncle Jim's stories of trips to a strange other world called Malesco. And Eddie's apartment was once his uncle's ... We know, of course, what's going on. Naturally, Eddie soon sort of stumbles -- falls -- through a dimensional portal into Malesco.

From there on the story is a fairly fast-moving thing about revolution in Malesco. This seems to be a parallel world, where history changed in roughly Roman times. It is now under the oppressive rule of the Hierarch, and his quasi-religious organization. Scientific knowledge is restricted greatly. and thus much less advanced than in our history. And, strangely, Lorna Maxwell has been co-opted by the rulers, and is nearly worshipped by the population, her glamor strangely enhanced. It seems our world is considered Paradise. Eddie is tangled up with some people in the hierarchy, and some out and out revolutionaries. But his only goal is to find Lorna, and bring her back, to clear his name.

All in all it's not really that interesting, unfortunately. You know how it ends, of course -- with Lorna and Eddie back in New York. And Lorna, strangely, trained perhaps by her star turn in Malesco, is now Malesca, the most beautiful woman in the world. And Eddie, who knows better, is unable to resist ...

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Birthday Ace Double: Dwellers of the Deep, by K. M. O'Donnell (Barry Malzberg)/The Gates of Time, by Neal Barrett Jr.

Barry Malzberg turns 80 today. I've already reviews a couple of his Ace Doubles on this blog -- here's the third and last.

Ace Double Reviews, 41: Dwellers of the Deep, by K. M. O'Donnell/The Gates of Time, by Neal Barrett, Jr. (#27400, 1970, $0.75)

by Rich Horton

"K. M. O'Donnell" is a pseudonym of Barry Malzberg's. Dwellers of the Deep is one of his "recursive" novels -- that is, it's about SF. It's some 35,000 words long. According to the ISFDB, it's his third novel, and his second Ace Double half (of 4 total). The Gates of Time was Neal Barrett's first or second novel (Kelwin also appeared in 1970), and his first of two Ace Double halves (I have also reviewed Highwood).

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Dwellers of the Deep is about a young man named Izzinius Fox, a collector (not a fan!) of SF magazines in 1951. Izzy's main interest is Tremendous Stories -- an obvious analog of Astounding. (Other SF magazines mentioned include Thoughtful (F&SF?) and Thrilling (Galaxy?).) Izzy deals with a bookseller named Stuart Wiseman, who has been selling him back issues of Tremendous at perhaps inflated prices. But Izzy is also dealing with a group of aliens, who periodically take his consciousness up to their ship and pressure him to turn over his copy of the issue of Tremendous containing Cupboard's article about "A New Engineering of the Mind". (Obviously referring to L. Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics: A New Science of the Mind".) The aliens claim they will use this article benevolently to guide Earth to a new utopian future, but Fox is afraid they mean to conquer us. (For some reason the issue in question changes from the May 1950 issue (which is actually the issue of Astounding in which the first Dianetics article appeared) to the December 1946 issue as the book goes on.)

Izzinius has other concerns. For example, he is afraid of women, but there is a young woman living in his apartment building, Susan Forsythe, who keeps invading his room and trying to get him to attend meetings of the local fan group, the Solarians. Fox is also out of work, having quit his civil service job to concentrate on SF magazine collecting. The aliens are torturing him with false memories of his dead father. And his landlord is just plain weird ...

So the novel continues -- full of satire of fan politics and fan obsessions, with the occasional side trip to satire of bureaucracy. It's really pretty funny for the most part, though it may depend a bit on getting some of the fannish injokes. Not a great story by any means but basically fun stuff -- much like the previous "O'Donnell" Ace Double I reviewed, Gather in the Hall of the Planets.

In my previous review of Highwood, I covered Neal Barrett's career: short stories in Galaxy and such places beginning in 1960, and novels starting in 1970 with Kelwin and The Gates of Time, and later the Aldair books for DAW. Then, as someone once said, Barrett stood too long next to fellow Texan Howard Waldrop and just mutated. Beginning in the mid 80s he published a few novels and a number of short stories that are gloriously weird, poetic, loopily imagined -- just real neat stuff, including novels such as Through Darkest America (1986), short stories like "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus", "Stairs", and "Cush". His more recent work includes a number of mysteries and a couple further unusual science fantasies beginning with The Prophecy Machine in 2000.

(Cover by Josh Kirby)
But what about The Gates of Time? Suffice it to say, it doesn't in the least hint at the pretty worthwhile writer Barrett became. Ignoring a pointless prologue and epilogue, it opens with Luis Jarcal, the only surviving human, on a huge multi-species starship. His lover is a catlike alien, but he is soon in trouble with her husband. And the starship is in the vanguard of efforts to hold back something called "the Void". And Jarcal mysteriously becomes possessed by a strange being called N'Cil. His only friends seem to be a symbiotic pair of aliens -- the birdlike Lhis and the plantlike Quan. We are told that Earth's first attempt at a starship was swallowed, along with Earth, by the Void, only Jarcal surviving.

OK -- that could work. Then piratical evil aliens destroy the starship, only Jarcal and Lhis-Quan surviving. At the aliens' planet they encounter another human -- naturally a shockingly beautiful woman, named Sesharane. After the escape the quartet goes on the run, learning that, well, Jarcal and his N'Cil companion are fated to save the world or something and ...

Blah, blah, blah. Pretty much a case of the author making things up as he goes along. Without much concern for internal consistency (for example, we learn that Earth apparently had an extensive interstellar empire -- but wait a minute, earlier they just had one doomed starship -- is this explained? NO!) There is also such silliness as Sesharane refusing to have sexual relationships with Jarcal because, even though she loves him and he her, she is unable to have babies, so sex would be pointless. Eh? (As it happens, I just have been reading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, which makes much of a couple of main, heterosexual, characters engaging in rather extravagantly non-propagational sex -- not that that's a big deal or anything, but just that the contrast in attitudes really struck me.) Anyway, I really can't recommend The Gates of Time at all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of C. M. Kornbluth

Cyril Kornbluth was born July 23, 1923, and died in 1958, only 34 years old, while running to catch a train in order to interview for an editing position at F&SF. He was one of SF's great cynics, and his work was dark and bracing. He collaborated extensively with Frederik Pohl, and also with Judith Merril. At the time of his death his reputation in the field exceeded Pohl's, but shortly thereafter, in New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis named Pohl arguably the field's best writer, and of course Pohl lived a half century and more beyond that, and did some tremendous work in that time, so by now he is (deservedly) regarded as the more important writer. But Kornbluth was very good as well, and it would have been wonderful to see where he might have ended up had he the chance to write more. Here's a selection of snippets I've written about Kornbluth, not necessarily representing his best work at all. But on what would have been his 96th birthday, I think he merits a look.

F&SF, Fall 1950

"The Silly Season" is C. M. Kornbluth at his most sardonic. A newspaperman investigates mysterious UFO-type manifestations. They seem real, but nothing comes of them. Over a few separate outbreaks, people become convinced they are all fake. Then the aliens REALLY come ...

Worlds Beyond, February 1951

Three more stories are reprints. One is C. M. Kornbluth's rather well-known first story, the short-short "The Rocket of 1955" (600 words) about a fake rocket launch. This first appeared in Escape in 1939, though the copyright notice here says "[c] 1941 by Albing Publications". ...

The third reprint is, as it happens, also by C. M. Kornbluth, though it is published as by "Walter C. Davies". "Forgotten Tongue" is also copyright 1941 by Albing Publications -- suggesting that the notice under "The Rocket of 1955" is a foulup, mistakenly copied from this story, which first appeared in the June 1941 Stirring Science Stories. Stirring Science Stories is yet another magazine to have died after its third issue (that June 1941 issue), though it was revived for one more issue in March 1942, by a different publisher. The blurb reads "A brief, apparently meaningless message -- but once you've read it, your mind wasn't your own". (Not sure what Knight was doing with tense there.) That made me hope for an early example of a "blit", but not so. It's more just sophisticated, and implausibly powerful, propaganda. It's set in a future divided between the Optimus party, representative of the rich (and apparently intelligent and physically superior) and the Lowers. The Optimus party is in control, but then an Optimus devises a way of influencing people through distributing books which subliminally make them Loyal -- but a Lower steals the book, changes every occurrence of Optimus to Lower, and turns the tables. Kind of dumb, I thought. Kornbluth did get some mileage out of the story, though, as besides this appearance and the original it was reprinted in the May 1942 Uncanny Tales.

Galaxy, December 1951

"With These Hands", by C. M. Kornbluth, is another story about a true artist facing replacement by less expensive machines. In this case Halvorsen ekes out a living by teaching, very occasionally selling something, and by the patronage of women who seem to hero worship him to some extent. In the dark conclusion, he finds this insupportable, and flees to a dangerous place to admire a true work of art, even if it means his life. Pretty good work.

Astounding, January 1952

And finally there is "That Share of Glory", one of C. M. Kornbluth's better known stories, though a somewhat atypical one. It lacks the bitterness of much of Kornbluth's most famous work -- indeed, it's downright Campbellian. It's about Alen, a novice in a quasi-religious order of linguists. He is assigned to his first mission, to help a somewhat rascally trader deal with the natives of Lyra. Alen does his job fairly well, using his knowledge of languages and customs to help foil some space pirates, and to help with the jewel trade on Lyra; and he also adheres to his Order's pacifism: they have a rule against ever using weapons. Then one of the crewmembers gets arrested, and it looks like the local authorities will railroad him, especially when Alen uses his knowledge to confound a strict local judge ... The resolution involves Alen realizing that sometimes violence is justified, and that the whole thing was a setup to test him: is he an inflexible prig only fit for low-level jobs in his order, or does he have the imagination to be a more influential member. So: very Campbellian. And pretty enjoyable.

Space Science Fiction, May 1953

"The Adventurer" is one of Kornbluth's somewhat well-known stories. It's cynical, naturally, and in a bracing way. In the future the US has become the Republic, ruled by hereditary and corrupt Presidents. The cabinet, in despair at the debased nature of the dynasty, decides to create a hero to lead a rebellion -- with cynically believable results. A good, bitter, story.

F&SF, April 1954

"I Never Ast No Favors", by C. M. Kornbluth (5700 words)
Amusing story told in a somewhat Runyonesque style. It's a letter from "Tough Tony", a teenaged gangster who has been sent to an upstate farm in lieu of jail. He's complaining to his mob boss about the horrors of farm life -- mainly a tough boss lady and a "hexing" war.

F&SF, November 1972

Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's “The Meeting” is a very simple story, really, set not far in the future. Harry Vladek is shown attending a parent-teacher meeting at his son’s school. This is a school for “exceptional children” – that is, children with special needs. We are given a portrait of the trouble Harry and his wife are having with their son Tommy, and that that some of their fellow parents are also having, and a portrait of a bit of mild optimism in that this new (and expensive) school does seem to be helping Tommy – a bit. Just a little bit. On coming home his wife reminds him that a certain Dr. Nicholson has called, and urgently needs Harry to call back, with a decision. We soon gather that the decision concerns whether to allow Tommy to be the subject of a brain transplant – another boy is dying, his brain is perfectly intact, but an accident will soon kill him. Harry and his wife will get a new brain for their child… but, of course, their child is not dead, and his brain, while decidedly not working very well, is not dead either. That’s pretty much the story, and as such it’s pretty effective, though ethically there doesn’t seem to be a choice. (The brain transplant would be murder, of course.) But the depiction of the Vladeks’ despair is effective.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: Short Stories of Fran Wilde

I've been busy the past few days -- my son Geoff got married on Saturday. And what with all that, I haven't been keeping up with this blog. Some time in the past week, I can't remember when exactly, was Fran Wilde's birthday. Fran's an exciting writer, and I've got to know her a bit at a few recent conventions, so I can say she's a neat person too. I hadn't exactly reviewed enough of her short stories for one of these collections, but there were a couple stories I didn't get to in Locus (my fault!) so I wrote a bit extra here (and, actually, I had already written more about "Clearly Lettered" in my Hugo ballot summary.)

Locus, July 2016

The Jewel and the Lapidary by Fran Wilde is a novella from’s line of slim books. The central fantastical idea is pretty cool: there is a valley protected from outsiders by powerful jewels that are wielded by the ruling family (“Jewels”) but contained by Lapidaries who each bond to a single Jewel. This story concerns the betrayal and fall of the valley, leaving one surviving Jewel and her Lapidary, both fairly insignificant young women. They must find a way to resist the invaders, and at least to prevent them using the valley’s mines to supply jewels to allow them to cement and extend their conquest. It’s a slim story, fairly uncompromising in its plot, nicely written: I liked it, and I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories. [And, hey, look -- here's another story in the same universe: The Fire Opal Mechanism! I'll get to it soon!]

Hugo Ballot overview for 2017

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde – a story of a visit to a museum exhibition that in the end seems to be a “freak show”, and which has a distinct and scary effect on the visitor. It’s told in the second person, and this is (perhaps rarely!) the exactly correct choice for this story, as the reader slowly realizes that the act of viewing the perhaps grotesque (or just misunderstood?) exhibits has parallels with how they see people who are different. This is a story that improved for me immensely on rereading – either because my mood was different, or because I saw more on a second pass -- the latter, really, is I think the truth.

Locus, November 2018

Uncanny’s 24th issue is subtitled Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and it features stories from writers who identify as disabled. Not all the stories explicitly feature disabled characters, but most do, and if a few read more as well-intentioned homilies than stories, the best here are very fine indeed. Fran Wilde is as ever challenging and intriguing with “Disconnect”, about a woman whose bones and joints disappear from her body in her sleep, usually recoverable; and her mentor, an older professor who is getting younger.

Expanded look at "The Synchronist", from Infinity's End

In Locus I wrote: "Fran Wilde’s “The Synchronist" is a pretty challenging story about the importance of consistent time-keeping for long distance space travel". I didn't write more because, well, Infinity's End had a lot of exceptional stories and I didn't have much space. But this is a really fine, interesting piece about a woman and her father, both of whom are experts in understanding and maintaining the consistency of timekeeping on interstellar travel. It's a wild story, and sometimes a bit hard to follow, but still fascinating.

Locus, March 2019

Uncanny in January-February features another challenging story from Fran Wilde. (I noticed that the last time I wrote about Wilde, I called both stories I covered “challenging”. I’m sure I did it on purpose – I’m even more sure Wilde does it on purpose.) “A Catalog of Storms” is built around a number of names given to different kinds of storms that menace a seaside village. But the story concerns the “weathermen” of that village, people who have been transformed into denizens of the air, and who can protect the town from the storms. Sila’s great aunt was one of the first weathermen, and her Mumma is terrified that she’ll lose one of her daughters the same way … and, indeed Sila’s sister Lillit is shown transforming in the opening sequence – and to her Mumma’s horror, Sila harbors the same ambition. The story concerns the stress between the heroic life and the mundane, perhaps, but more than that it is involved with language, and with letting go.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Cory Doctorow

Yesterday was Cory Doctorow's birthday. So in slightly belated recognition, here's a collection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction -- some of the most intelligent, politically engage, and technologicall intriguing SF of the past couple of decades.

Locus, September 2002

Black Gate, by contrast, avowedly tries to publish more traditional adventure-oriented fantasy. The fourth issue, for Summer 2002, features a number of stories that fit that description just fine. The best story, though, is Cory Doctorow's "Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)", a post-holocaust tale, and straight SF, not fantasy, but I'm not complaining. A group of people are scratching out a living by scavenging the ruins of a "dresdenned" city. The narrator is a trumpet player in a casual band that represents the closest thing to real community around. When a young woman shows up and tries to get the locals to start growing plants instead of scavenging, there is some surprising resistance. The characters are well-drawn, and the central issue thought-provoking, though I thought the resolution unconvincing.

Locus, November 2002

The online newsmagazine Salon has long showed interest in SF, so perhaps it's not surprising that they have published an SF novelette: "0wnz0red", by Cory Doctorow, posted August 28. It's a fine story, too, pretty much in Bruce Sterling territory, about a software engineer in a decline after his best friend has died of. Then his friend shows up alive, indeed, in excellent health. It seems he has been treated so that his autonomic functions are under software control, to his body's benefit. But the feds want to keep that stuff under wraps ... I liked it.

Locus, January 2003

The December offering from Sci Fiction begs comparison with "Junk DNA", if only because both stories are collaborations by writers noted for madcap near future extrapolation. "Jury Service", by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, concerns a man who is selected to serve on a "jury" evaluating, for safety and utility, some tech downloaded from post-singularity, all the while worrying about a bio-hazard that seems to have infected him. The plot is twisty and interesting and frenetic, and the heart of the story, the depiction of wacky future tech and social adjustments to that tech, is neat stuff.

Locus, March 2003

Finally, the online newsmagazine Salon has published another fine story by Cory Doctorow. "Liberation Spectrum" (posted January 16, 2003) crackles with speculation. A "mobile multinational" pushing "cognitive radio" faces deep internal stress after there attempt to wire a Mohawk reservation and free them from the national telecommunication monopoly is resisted by the Canadian feds. The speculation is interesting technologically, and interesting sociologically, and the personal aspect (focussed on the corporation's founder and CEO) works as well. It's often funny, and also moving. And in many ways it's reminiscent of a Campbell-era Analog story, but 21st Century style, post-Bruce Sterling style.

Locus, February 2004

DAW's "monthly magazine" of themed anthologies offers a reliable if seldom exciting source of new SF and Fantasy. 2003 closes with Mike Resnick's New Voices in Science Fiction: 20 short stories by new writers (variably defined: from complete unknowns like Paul Crilley to well-established writers like Kage Baker and Susan R. Mathews). For the most part the stories seem more promising than outstanding. A high point is Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross's "Flowers From Alice", a very clever story of posthuman marriage with a delightful ending twist.

Locus, August 2004

I mentioned Emswhiller's story from the second issue of Argosy, dated May-June. I think the magazine is successfully straddling genres according to its apparent ambition. Besides the Emshwiller story there is a fine mystery by O'Neil DeNoux, a nice humorous Lucifer Jones piece from Mike Resnick, and a very enjoyable wild pair of novellas from Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Their 2002 Sci Fiction novella "Jury Service" is reprinted, followed by a brand new story, "Appeals Court", that follows directly from the first. Our hero, Huw, carrying an Ambassador from the post-Singularity "Cloud" of uploaded intelligences, makes his way willy-nilly to a much-changed U.S. There he finds primitive Baptists, petroleum trees, a hypercolony of flesh-eating ants, and another Church promoting lots of sex. And he hasn't escaped Judge Judy either ... Like the first story, it's full of whipcrack smart satire and wild speculation – fun stuff. [These became a novel, The Rapture of the Nerds.]

Locus, April 2005

Infinite Matrix was more or less missing in action last year, but so far this year it is in fine form. Perhaps the most talked-about short story of the year to date is Cory Doctorow's "i, robot". Doctorow is doing a series of stories re-examining SF classics from his contemporary political viewpoint. "i, robot" considers Asimov's robot stories (more The Caves of Steel than I, Robot, I thought) as well as George Orwell's 1984. Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg is a detective in Toronto, raising his daughter alone after his wife defected to Eurasia. UNATS (North America) is engaged in perpetual war with the rest of the world, while trying to maintain "Social Harmony" by coercive means including restricting genetic engineering and robotic development (such as true AI). One day his daughter disappears, and Arturo tries to track her down, ending up in a tangle of loyalties – his wife may be involved, as well as scary advance robots, and on the other side the less than pleasant folks from "Social Harmony". I think it's a fine story – better than 2004's "Anda's Game" – my only quarrel is that while the depiction of the dystopian situation in North America is only too plausible, the depiction of the fairly utopian alternative in Eurasia is sheer wish-fulfillment. Still – a very thought-provoking work, well worth the notice it has received.

Review of Future Washington (Locus, January 2006)

Cory Doctorow's “Human Readable” opens as Trish, a lawyer, and her boyfriend, a scientist, visit the man’s family for the first time. On the way there, the emergent quasi-AI that controls traffic breaks down – the first, it turns out, of many such breakdowns. Trish becomes convinced that the extended network of tiny computing devices that is used for traffic control and other beneficial things is vulnerable to manipulation, and needs to be made “human readable”, even at cost to its efficiency. Her boyfriend is convinced that it works best if left alone – that occasional breakdowns are a small price to pay for the huge ultimate benefits. The story demonstrates (not quite convincingly, mainly because the tech is only handwaved in) that powerful interests can fiddle with the network so that, for example, rich people avoid traffic jams, while people on the outs with those in power constantly lose cellphone connectivity, and so on. Doctorow makes it more interesting by interweaving Trish’s love story with the political story. It’s good stuff, though I thought not quite outstanding. I note that on the surface it’s purely about the dangers and political problems of a near-future technological advance, but that it is also a pretty straightforward metaphorical look at the dangers and political problems of free-market capitalism.

Locus, October 2006

I didn’t find the second issue of the new online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe quite as involving as the first. Still, it features a very generous helping of stories and articles, many quite entertaining. I liked Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, a post-holocaust novelette in which a bio-engineered plague kills most of humanity, and for a brief time a group of computer geeks try to set up a new world order of sorts.

Locus, October 2008

And an exciting new source of online fiction has appeared:, associated with the publisher of course. The first three text stories (there is also a graphic story) appeared in July and August, all from “hot new writers” in a sense, ages ranging from 37 to 44: Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Charles Stross. To which generation do these belong? I don’t know, but I do sense that they (perhaps especially Doctorow and Stross) feel that they are actively in dialogue with each other. The best of these stories is Doctorow’s “The Things That Make We Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away”, about a quasi-religious, nearly monastic, organization called The Order, the members of which are programmers who live communally. It seems utopian, but the protagonist learns some of the costs when he ventures outside to chase the source of an “anomaly” in the datastreams he monitors, and realizes who he has been working for (indirectly) and the effect of his work on ordinary people.

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

Another of the bumper crop of new unthemed original anthology series has put out its second number. Fast Forward 2, unlike books from Jonathan Strahan and Ellen Datlow, is quite overtly an all-Science Fiction book. It also features no fewer than three collaborative stories. SF, probably in great part because of its commercial roots, has long featured a somewhat high proportion of collaborations, but three in one volume these days is unusual. In each case the partners are of broadly similar age and notoriety, suggesting that the contributions of each writer are likely about equal. The longest and most ambitious is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel. This is apparently a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model – otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation – at multiple levels – and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in – nor always understood – what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

Review of Life on Mars (Locus, May 2011)

Cory Doctorow’s “Martian Chronicles” is the latest of his stories taking their titles from classic SF, though the story itself doesn’t really react to or comment on Bradbury. It’s about a boy on his way to Mars, who is really good at playing a Sims-like game mimicking a business setup. He makes a couple of friends who take different roles in the game, and learns, in Heinleinesque fashion (complete with the Heinlein trick of winning arguments by framing the opposing position as you desire) to know better, and to understand what’s really going on at Mars, where the economy is supposedly modeled on the game he plays.

Locus, June 2014

Robot Uprisings is John Joseph Adams' latest project, teamed this time with Daniel H. Wilson. The theme is clear enough, and the stories as a set are a fine examination of variations on it, from a nicely varied set of writers too, both from within and without the genre. As with many themed anthologies, read all at once there might be a bit of a sense of too much repetition. But by and large this is a strong book.

My favorite story was a reprint that I missed on its first appearance in 2010. Cory Doctorow's “Epoch” is about BIGMAC, a “doomed rogue AI”, and his story is told by Odell Vyphus, the sysadmin who has inherited responsibility for BIGMAC. Apparently BIGMAC was something of a dead end – “there just weren't any killer apps for AI”. Now it's obsolete, and expensive to maintain, and Odell's boss wants him to kill the AI. Naturally BIGMAC finds out about this plan, and implements its own plan to save itself. The story is funny and intelligent and moving and believable – the same can be said for the characters. Very strong work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Esther Friesner

Today is also Esther Friesner's birthday. Friesner is best known for her comic work, and that work is very funny indeed. But she also can be very affecting, as with her two Nebula winning short stories. here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, most from Locus but also a review of a story collection, from 3SF.

Locus, April 2002

The April F&SF is very solid.  Several stories are comic – particularly notable being Esther Friesner's novelette "Just Another Cowboy", and Thomas M. Disch's set of brief Biblical retellings, "Torah! Torah! Torah!".  Friesner's story is set on a Texas ranch that has just been inherited by a scrawny boy who was raised in New York.  He and his shrewish aunt come to take possession, and the farmhands are naturally concerned for their futures.  But there is one very special farmhand … It's silly, quite entertaining, fun.

3SF, February 2003

By contrast Esther Friesner, it must be said, is fairly well known – at any rate, she owns two Nebula Awards for short fiction, and she has published any number of novels, many of them comic but some quite dark.  Here's a collection of recent work: Death and the Librarian and Other Stories.  It's an excellent display of her talents.  It includes her two Nebula winners: the title story, a moving piece an old woman who reads to a rather special group of children, and her encounter with death; and "A Birthday", a fierce and thoughtful story about the human costs of abortion – and of anti-abortion laws.  My other favorite here is "Chanoyu", a striking SF story interleaving a Japanese tea ceremony with slow revelations about the artificial person at the center of the story, and about its job harvesting genetic material.

This collection amply displays Friesner's range, with humourous and whimsical stories like "How to Make Unicorn Pie", fierce satire in "'White', said Fred", a highly poetic, magic realist story about the Spanish Revolution in "Love, Crystal, and Stone", an odd, clever, futuristic take on Alice in "A Pig's Tale", even one brand new story, "Ilion" (a September 11 piece).  At times the stories are over-sentimental, at times a joke is belabored, but overall, a fine collection.

Locus, July 2004

The July issue of F&SF is a special "All-American" issue, with all the stories on American themes. For example, Esther Friesner's "Johnny Beansprout" is a hilarious story of an alternative Johnny Appleseed, spreading not only bean sprouts but vegetarian dogma. The kicker is that the story is told from the POV of one of Johnny's adoptive relatives: Sawney Bean, with all that that name implies.

Locus, April 2005

At the March Asimov's, Esther M. Friesner's cover novelette, "The Fraud", features a penniless English gentleman, George Pengallen, investigating what must surely be fraudulent claims of a woman pregnant by a unicorn. But frauds abound – Pengallen himself is a deceptive man, as surely too are his lover and his new patron. Much is made of the fraudulent Mrs. Tufts, who claimed to give birth to rabbits. But somehow the woman's claims ring a but more truly. The conclusion is inevitably sad and cynical.

Locus, October 2006

I didn’t find the second issue of the new online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe quite as involving as the first. Still, it features a very generous helping of stories and articles, many quite entertaining. Esther Friesner’s “Benny Comes Home” is just very funny, about a boy in a post-WWII Jewish family who learns a lot of family secrets when a cousin finally comes home from the war, and another cousin deals with her family insisting she finally marry someone.

Locus, September 2007

Also in the August F&SF ... Esther Friesner is  entertaining, and quite clever, in “At These Prices”, in which a rather greedy hotel guest finds herself fortuitously pledged the service of a brownie. It seems the hotel has inherited the very inexpensive use of a whole group of magical creatures … and a misstep means that Ms. Franklin gets the use of the brownie. Which is unpleasant for him – but his friends are there to help.

In the online world, Helix for Summer features a strong set of stories, all by women. I preferred Esther Friesner’s sharply satirical “A Sacred Institution”, in which a slimy politician marries his dog but runs into trouble when aliens show up who demand that promises like marriage be kept – and who can enforce such demands.

Locus, August 2016

Now to some anthologies. Bryan Thomas Schmidt has a couple new books about, both a mix of reprints and originals. Galactic Games is a collection of sport stories, timed to coincide with the Rio Olympics. In this case the book is mostly originals, often dealing with attempts at interspecies sport, and (not always on purpose) managing to highlight the difficulties of fair completion between entities of a radically different physical makeup. Maybe the best take on that comes from Esther Friesner, in her wickedly funny tale of what happens when a representative of a very warlike species wants to be a cheerleader, “Pompons and Circumstance”.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley was one of the greatest SF writers of short stories, particularly funny short stories, though he was certainly capable of deeper work (even in the funny stories.) I read through basically all of his story collections a quarter century or so back, a very rewarding effort.His novels were never as good as his short fiction, but they were still reliably enjoyable.  He was born in 1928 and died in 2005, after falling ill while visiting Russia. He was named SFWA Author Emeritus in 2001, and award that was controversial in some quarters, because it was often regarded as a pat on the back for an accomplished long-time writer who "wasn't good enough for Grand Master status". Sheckley, it was felt (and I agree) was potentially a Grand Master, if perhaps not a slam dunk case, so the Emeritus designation seemed almost an insult, though Sheckley by all accounts was quite happy to be so honored.

What follows is what I've written about his short fiction, a few reviews of late stories in Locus, plus a number taken from my "retro-reviews" of 1950s magazines. Alas, none of the stories I mention are among his best, such as, say, the fairly early "Specialist" or the much later "Pas de Trois of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer".

Astounding, March 1953

The only short story is Robert Sheckley's "Fool's Mate" (4800 words), in which two equally matched space fleets confront each other. It seems their computers have determined that the alien fleet has a tiny positional advantage which nearly guarantees victory -- but that neither fleet can attack since the act of attacking will ruin their position and guarantee failure. The standoff is psychologically devastating, until a man comes up with an idea -- use one of the gunnery officers who has been driven insane to control attack strategy. You see, the other side's computer will never be able to figure out a madman ... Cute, I suppose, but not terribly believable.

Science Fiction Stories, 1953

Robert Sheckley's "Ask a Foolish Question" (3600 words) concerns representatives of several different races finding a machine built by an ancient race called "The Answerer". The Answerer will answer any question -- but can lesser races ask a sensible enough question and understand the answer?

Space Science Fiction, September 1953

Robert Sheckley's "The Hour of Battle" (2200 words) is another human/alien war story, with a nasty twist. Humans have encountered evil telepathic aliens, who can take over people's minds and make them do anything. They have developed a telepathy detector, and a series of ships guard the Solar System, ready to destroy the aliens at the first sign of telepathic probing. But perhaps they haven't quite thought this through ... though what hope there really could be in such a situation I can't see.

Galaxy, August 1954

The short stories are "Subsistence Level", by Finn O'Donnevan (4500 words); ... "Finn O'Donnevan" is really Robert Sheckley. I'm not sure why he used a pseudonym for "Subsistence Level", which is fairly characteristic of his work of the time, though not one of his best stories. A young couple move to the asteroids to be pioneers, and they must live difficult pioneer lives: 5 hour work days!, plain eight course meals prepared by household robots, etc. Minor but acceptable.

If, September 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Battle" (2000 words) extrapolates today's trends toward increasing automation of warfare to the Battle of Armageddon. OK, but mostly a punchline story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The short stories include Robert Sheckley's "Ghost V" (5300 words), the first (chronologically) AAA Ace Planet Decontamination Story. This is more straightforward than most Sheckley. The AAA Ace guys must solve the mystery of a planet where two groups of explorers have each died violently, despite no evidence of dangerous creatures on the planet. The solution is OK, but not great.

Galaxy, November 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Laxian Key" (3500 words) is a AAA Ace story. Arnold's latest get-rich-quick idea is a "Free Producer", which can make endless supplies of something for nothing. Problem is, the something isn't worth much! It's mostly a joke story, with no real resolution, but it's pretty funny.

Galaxy, July 1955

Robert Sheckley's "Deadhead" (3000 words) is about a struggling scientific outpost on Mars, inhabited only by Ph.D.'s who are forced to do all the ordinary work, too. Every so often a stowaway "deadheads" to Mars, trying to escape tiresome Earth. The "deadhead" seems a very useful person, but regulations say he must be sent directly home. But the question is -- how did he get to Mars after all? The answer is a bit cute -- worth 3000 words, I guess, but nothing special.

Locus, September 2003

Weird Tales for July-August features a story by the wonderful Robert Sheckley: "The Tales of Zanthias". Zanthias is a leader of an unusual town of misfits, a town surrounded by monsters such as zombies, calibans, witches, ghosts, all of which he tries to keep away. One morning his wife is missing, and he looks for her -- and finds that he himself has a secret.

Locus, January 2004

Mike Resnick's latest DAW anthology reverses the conceit of an earlier book: this time we have Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. As with the previous book, the results are mixed. ... Also good is Robert Sheckley's "A Tale of the Oroi", a pleasant concoction of fantasy and SF in which a fairy from Ancient Greece encounters a time traveler from the 21st Century, with slyly presented, unexpected, results.