Saturday, August 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Sleeping Planet, by William R. Burkett, Jr.

Birthday Review: Sleeping Planet, by William R. Burkett, Jr.

William R. Burkett, Jr., turns 76 today. He isn't much remembered in SF this days, but his first novel, an Analog serial from the bedsheet days, is still remembered fondly in some circles. He was a journalist by main profession. He published two more SF books much later in 1998, Bloodsport and Blood Lines, books that the Science Fiction Encyclopedia describes as spoofish Space Opera about a big game hunter and his cyborg sidekick. In 2013, he self-published A Matter of Logistics 1, an expansion of a novella that John W. Campbell had rejected in 1968. (Campbell apparently had told him it needed to be expanded, and either Burkett didn't have time to do it then, or perhaps by the time he could take it further Campbell had died.) The second part of A Matter of Logistics hasn't appeared yet. Here's what I wrote about Sleeping Planet some while back:

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
One of the novels I used to hear cited every so often, in places like rec.arts.sf-written, as an underappreciated old SF book, is William R. Burkett, Jr.'s Sleeping Planet. I've seen it cited by a couple of people as an all-time favorite, and it often comes up in lists of "humorous SF". It comes up particularly often, and most appropriately, when people as for "writers like Eric Frank Russell". That last, at least, is true. Sleeping Planet reads almost like an EFR pastiche. It was serialized in Analog in the July through September 1964 issues, at about the time Russell retired. While John Campbell's main Russell replacement, in my view, was Christopher Anvil, he was always a sucker for stories of this type.

And what type is that? "Stupid Alien" stories. The sort of thing Russell did in Next of Kin, Wasp, Three to Conquer, "Nuisance Value", and other stories, and the sort of thing Anvil did in his Pandora stories. (Though to give Anvil his due, his "stupid aliens" weren't entirely cliche stupid aliens -- in some ways they really were superior to humans, and in fact they end up winning, though partly by letting the humans "join" them.) The basic idea is to either a) have aliens with what should be superior tech or numbers invade Earth, and be repulsed by human pluck or ingenuity; or b) have a few humans (or just one) be stuck on the alien planet and single-handedly outwit an entire planet of aliens. Sleeping Planet fits template a.

The story is told from three main viewpoints. James Rierson is a lawyer who is hunting in backwoods Georgia when strange things start to happen, beginning with the deer he is after just collapsing to sleep. Bradford Donovan is an ex-soldier, invalided due to his two artificial legs, who finds himself the only person who stays awake in an air-raid shelter after the alien Llarans attack. Martak Sarno is the Supreme Commander of the Llaran invasion fleet. It is Sarno who discovered the Llaran secret weapon, which he hopes will turn the tide in a decades long war. A plant on one of the Llaran colony planets secretes a poison which is harmless to Llarans but which puts Terran life to sleep, normally for just hours but Sarno's project has extended this period to months. The catch is that once exposed to this plant and put to sleep once, Terrans are immune to its effects. This means that a few humans who happen to have visited the Llaran planet in question and who encountered this plant are immune. Obviously, Rierson and Donovan are among those few.

Donovan is soon captured. But he soon gathers that Llarans are extremely superstitious, and he begins telling ghost stories and causing a loss of morale among the rank and file invaders. (This is a particularly Russell-like notion.) All this would come to nothing except that Rierson, who spends some time sniping at isolated Llaran units, overhears some of the soldiers repeating Donovan's stories, and cooperates by planting the idea that he is one of the ghosts Donovan mentions. Even that wouldn't have helped, except that Rierson eventually discovers the one group of fairly intelligent Earth inhabitants that are unaffected by the gas: robots. The story, then, involves the coordinated efforts of Rierson, Donovan, and the robots to continue to spread fear among the Llarans, finally bringing them to surrender.

I suppose it's a pleasant enough story, but it hardly seems worth special remembrance. It's second-rate imitation Russell, basically. It's not really even very funny -- which to be fair wasn't really Burkett's intention, in my view. Certainly the occasional atrocities committed by the aliens are hard to laugh at. It depends too much on implausibilities -- I suppose the first one, the unlikely effects of the "sleeping gas", are acceptable as the raison d'etre for the story, but the way the action plays out, and especially the convenient dullness of the aliens, just didn't convince me. Finally, there just wasn't enough cleverness. All the above shortcomings could have been overcome simply by a sufficient quantity of clever or silly or just plain adventurous happenings, but there really isn't enough here. A very minor work.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Chris Willrich

Birthday Review: Stories of Chris Willrich

Chris Willrich turns 52 today. He's a neat writer of both fantasy and SF, probably better known for his Persimmon and Bone fantasies (several short stories and three novels), but his SF has been very nice too. Here's a collection of my Locus reviews of his work:

Locus, July 2002

I also liked Chris Willrich's atmospheric fantasy "King Rainjoy's Tears" (F&SF, July), in which the poet Persimmon Gaunt and her lover, the thief Imago Bone, must find the exiled, personified, title objects, lest the compassion-deprived King force his country into war.

Locus, May 2003

Chris Willrich's "Count to One" (Asimov's, May) quite intriguingly considers the relationship of an AI and a human. Kwatee was developed to understand the Earth's climate well enough to recommend a course of action to save Earth from either runaway greenhouse effect or a new ice age. He "lives" mostly in a simulation of Earth, taking on a persona resembling an American Indian god. Now he faces danger from "wolves", viruses of some sort that have been attacking him. But he is also in love, with a woman who enters his simulation virtually. And he needs to make a decision -- what ecological changes are best? And best for whom? Humans? Earth? Life in general? Kwatee? A very thoughtful, moving, piece.

Locus, August 2006

I thought the August issue of F&SF particularly strong, one of the best issues of any magazine this year. It opens and closes with strong novelettes. Chris Willrich’s “Penultima Thule” is another Persimmon Gaunt/Imago Bone story. The poet Gaunt and her lover Bone have headed north, hoping to dispose of the deadly book they have stolen, a “cacography”. Reading it is fatal, and its influence is malignant even unread. But nearly at the northern rim of the world Bone is captured by the Stonekin, to become a victim of the “Hunger Stone”. Gaunt must free him and then flee with him to the Rim – still not knowing what will result of ridding the world of the book. It’s colorful, dourly romantic, and bleakly funny, and in the end moving and poetic.

Locus, September 2007

The pick story in the August F&SF is Chris Willrich’s “A Wizard of the Old School”. This is another story about the thieves Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone. But here the title character is central: Krumwheezle of the Old School. It was he who identified the baleful book which featured in the previous story “Penultima Thule”. In this story we learn more of Krumwheezle – his history at the Old School, his lost lover, his quiet life in his adopted village. And when Gaunt and Bone return, still cursed though they hope to have a child, he joins them on a quest that may cure them – and, it turns out, may cure some of his own problems, problems he hardly acknowledges. This is a story that is both a satisfying and imaginative high fantasy, and an equally satisfying, slightly sentimental, domestic tale.

Locus, January 2009

The new webzine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, devoted to, in editor Scott H. Andrews’s words, “literary adventure fantasy”, is off to a promising start. The first couple of issues of this biweekly magazine feature a strong Gaunt and Bone story from Chris Willrich, in which his continuing characters, a pair of lovers, one a thief, one a poet, are charged with returning the title object, “The Sword of Loving Kindness”, to its rightful owner – with consequences expected to be dire, yet which turn out ironically different.

Locus, June 2009

Another very pure SF story in the June Asimov's comes from Chris Willrich, better known for his sword and sorcery stories at F&SF. “Sails the Morne” is a very strange story, only slowly comprehensible – but in a good way. It evolves into a mystery, with a spaceship and its motley crew (humans and AIs, from Earth and elsewhere) transporting a valuable artifact (The Book of Kells) as well as a likewise motley group of aliens to an Exposition on the outskirts of the Solar system. Theft and murder result … it’s very entertaining, often quite funny, satisfyingly concluded.

Locus, September 2011

The new Black Gate is another monster-sized issue. (Full disclosure – I have an article in the magazine, and am a regular contributor.) As ever it’s stuffed with satisfying adventure fantasy. Notable here is how often the heroes are the unexpected:  for example Chris Willrich’s “The Lions of Karthagar”, in which two armies from opposite sides of the world converge on the peaceful city of Karthagar, beside the Ruby Waste, there to learn that peace comes at a price. Conventional enough, if well executed, except that the story is told through two aging weatherworkers, one from each camp, who find in each other something more valuable than their ambitious masters, or the utopia of Karthagar.

Locus, May-June 2012

Finally, in the May F&SF, Chris Willrich offers “Grand Tour”, in which I-Chen Fisher is a young woman, ready to take her “Grand Tour” among the stars, while her loving but perhaps a little stifling family readies to see her off, and to leave on a Wanderjahr of their own. Luckily, she meets a boy her own age with his different sort of family problems. Little enough really happens, but it's a nice glimpse of an expansive-seeming future, and a nice look at a few well-drawn characters.

Chris Willrich has another story, “The Mote Dancer and the Firelife”, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies for March 8. Oddly enough, its main character is also named I-Chen – perhaps she is meant to be a much older version of the character in “Grand Tour”? (Not that the story suggests that!) She's returned to the planet where her husband died, accompanied by his ghost, to look for resolution of sorts. The natives of this planet, called Spinies, can link into a network facilitated by ancient alien technology (“Motes”), and they feel a certain contempt for humans, who mostly can't. But I-Chen is a rare human “Mote Dancer” … The story involves the alien's habit of fighting as pairs (“Quixotes” and “Sanchos”), and the “Firelife” where their dead go – including perhaps the Spiny who killed her husband. It's neat, colorful stuff.

Birthday Review: The Narrow Land, by Jack Vance

The Narrow Land, by Jack Vance

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Wayne Barlowe)
The Narrow Land is an interesting collection by Jack Vance. It dates to about 1980, though first publication seems to be 1982 in a DAW edition. That is to say, it's copyright 1980, and the internal matter (with which Contento and the ISFDB agree) says that the first publication was in 1982 by DAW.  The edition I have is a 1984 Coronet (UK) paperback. The stories, however, date to much earlier: one from 1967, one from 1963, and the others to 1956 and earlier still. So it's a bit odd: almost a collection of odds and ends and leftovers, you would think. But actually it has some very good stuff, and some quite significant stuff.

Perhaps most interesting is Vance's very first published story, "The World-Thinker", from the Summer 1945 Thrilling Wonder Stories. This is a striking story, quite Vancean (much more so than lots of early Vance, such as the weaker Magnus Ridolph stories), certainly rather clumsy in some ways but still effective. More to the point, perhaps, it really shows certain of Vance's career long characteristics, particularly the odd (or perhaps not so odd) mix of hints of misogynism with the depiction of the major female character as strong and independent.

One of the '60s stories is the title piece, about the coming of age of an alien in a strange environment. (The environment, I believe, is intended to be the terminator of a tide-locked planet: hence "The Narrow Land", though that is never made explicit.) The alien, a creature called Ern, grows up among similar beings, who nonetheless are different from him -- eventually he learns the truth about his nature (which is tied up interestingly with the species' life cycle). The other later story is "Green Magic", in my opinion one of Vance's best short fantasies, about a man who after much effort learns the secret of entry to the "green" plane of magic.

(Cover by George Underwood)
The other stories include are "The Ten Books", "Chateau D'If", "Where Hesperus Falls", and "The Masquerade on Dicantropus". The latter two are very minor. "Chateau D'If" is a decent long novella, published under a different (and silly, as it is a spoiler, so I won't mention it) title in Thrilling Wonder in 1950. It's about five men who decide to answer an ad for the title business, which promises mysterious adventure -- but something more sinister is up. Not by any means great, but fun and scary. And "The Ten Books" (aka "Men of the Ten Books") is a rather Campbellian story (though it actually sold to Startling Stories) about the rediscovery of a lost Earth colony, which seems to be an Utopia, but the people of which revere the memory of Earth, and believe that Earth must be much superior to their society. (This story made one of the Bleiler/Dikty Year's Best volumes.) 

All in all, quite a good story collection, and I find it odd that stories as good (though not great) as these were uncollected by 1980.

Ace Double Reviews, 9: Monsters in Orbit, by Jack Vance/The World Between and Other Stories, by Jack Vance

On what would have been Jack Vance's 103rd birthday, here's one of his Ace Doubles -- really, this can be regarded as one big story collection.

Ace Double Reviews, 9: Monsters in Orbit, by Jack Vance/The World Between and Other Stories, by Jack Vance (#M-125, 1965, $0.45)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by ? and Jack Gaughan)
Monsters in Orbit is presented as a novel, but it is actually two novellas, both featuring the same protagonist. The novellas were published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1952, "Abercrombie Station" in the February issue, and "Cholwell's Chickens" in the August issue. "Abercrombie Station" is about 23,000 words long, "Cholwell's Chickens" about 18,000 words. I have not seen the original issues in which these were published, so I don't know if the Ace publication involves any revisions, but I suspect not. "Abercrombie Station" is slightly better known, as it was reprinted in the Pocket Books collection* The Best of Jack Vance in 1976. Otherwise, as far as I or Contento know, these stories have only been reprinted in this Ace Double, and in the 1990 Underwood-Miller collection Chateau D'If. (This collection includes another Thrilling Wonder novella, the title story, originally called "New Bodies for Old" in the August 1950 Thrilling Wonder; and two fairly well known stories: "The Gift of Gab", from the September 1955 Astounding, and "Rumfuddle", from a 1973 Silverberg anthology, Three Trips in Time and Space.)

The World Between and Other Stories, by contrast, is frankly presented as a collection of stories. It's a fairly good one, with four novelettes and a short story, including his Hall of Fame story "The Moon Moth", totaling some 45,000 words.

The two stories in Monsters in Orbit both feature a teen-aged girl named Jean Parlier. She was abandoned by her parents as an infant, and raised to the age of 10 by a bar owner named Joe Parlier. Then she killed Joe and a few others (it is hinted that this was in self-defense of a rape threat), and gadded about the galaxy, escaping from the odd foster home or orphanage. At 16, and beautiful (and experienced), she answers an advertisement offering $1,000,000 to seduce and marry Earl Abercrombie, the owner of the satellite habitat/resort Abercrombie Station. The trick is that Abercrombie Station, due to its microgravity, is a haven for very fat people, to the extent that extreme obesity is considered beautiful, and a very slim girl like Jean is considered odd. But Earl Abercrombie is genetically unable to put on enough weight -- hence Jean's mysterious employer assumes she will attract him. (He has also shown signs of attraction to "Earth types" before.) Jean goes up to Abercrombie Station as a servant, and soon finds that a) her wiles don't really work on Earl, and b) even her cynical self can't bear the thought of marrying him, even for $2,000,000, or $10,000,000. But she also runs across some sinister secrets involving Earl's collection of monsters, and Earl's mysteriously and conveniently dead and exiled older brothers.

Naturally Jean manages to come out ahead, but it seems that money doesn't satisfy her. She really wants parents -- so in "Cholwell's Chickens" she heads back to her home planet to try to track down her parents. In so doing she encounters a mysterious man named Cholwell who claims to be raising chickens on the same planet. Jean finds her mother, rather unsatisfactorily, and also finds herself mistaken for another woman on this planet. And she encounters Cholwell again, soon to learn the what his "chickens" really are, and eventually to learn the true and surprising identity of her real parents.

Both stories are silly in many ways, and "Abercrombie Station" is borderline offensive at points. Jean is often sympathetic, but at the same time she is a multiple murderess (albeit with some justification). I actually rather enjoyed "Cholwell's Chickens", with reservations, but I thought "Abercrombie Station" unconvincing. It is a mystery to me how it was chosen for a Best Of collection. Also, I must have read it back then -- I own the collection, bought shortly after it came out in 1976. But I don't remember it at all.

The stories in The World Between and Other Stories are:

"The World Between" (10,600 words, from the May 1953 Future, wherein it was called "Ecological Onslaught") -- a team from the Blue Star, all names starting with "B", finds a planet in between their home and the rival Kay system (yes, all names starting with "K"). They claim it and begin terraforming efforts, but the Kay people, including a beautiful spy, drop off pests to spoil all the terraforming. The "hero" (ambiguously so) finds a clever counter to this, and wins the love of the spy in the process. Minor but somewhat intriguing in its ecological themes.

"The Moon Moth" (13,900 words, from Galaxy, August 1961) -- a classic story, about Edwer Thissell, newly come to Sirene, where everyone wears masks and abides by extremely fussy rules of manners. Edwer finally takes advantage of the rigidity of Sirenese society to gain extra status.

"Brain of the Galaxy" (9200 words, from Worlds Beyond, February 1951 -- it has later been retitled "The New Prime") -- the "ruler" of the galaxy is chosen by a battle of virtual experiences in various environments. A pretty good story, actually -- one of the best of Vance's earliest pieces.

"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" (8300 words, from Fred Pohl's pioneering original anthology series Star, #3, 1954) -- colonists on a world with an eccentric orbit and multiple suns have a hard time adapting to the unpredictability.

"The Men Return" (3300 words, from the July 1957 Infinity) -- far in the future reality is slippery and arbitrary. But with sufficient will and rationality ... a neat, very different, story.

*Ballantine/Del Rey had put out a series of "Best Of" collections of authors such as Stanley Weinbaum, C. L. Moore, Lester Del Rey and many others, beginning in 1974. Pocket, apparently in response, started their own series, with entries from Vance and Poul Anderson among others.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis

I wrote this review when the book came out in 2003. Today is Martin Amis' 70th birthday, so I'm posting it in his honor. It's not the best regarded of his novels (it might be close to the bottom), but I liked it OK, though it's certainly not my favorite Martin Amis work.

Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis

a review by Rich Horton

Martin Amis is the writing son of the late Sir Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim and The Old Devils and New Maps of Hell and many other books, and one of my favorite writers. I've read quite a lot of Martin's work as well, generally though not always with enjoyment. His best known mode is quite savagely satirical, usually taking on the vulgar excesses of contemporary life, with especial interest in violence and in pornography. This is the mode of his most famous novels, such as Money, The Information, and London Fields, at any rate. Yellow Dog is his new novel, and it is very much in that same mode. Also, as with much of Martin Amis' work, it can be placed, somewhat uncertainly, in the SF genre: at any rate, it is set in an alternate present-day England, with an importantly different royal house, the last three generations of which feature such controversially named kings as John II, Richard IV, and now Henry IX. Also, a minor plot point is that a comet is heading towards Earth, predicted to miss by only a few thousand miles.

Yellow Dog interleaves several stories, all in the end revolving around pornography. The main character is Xan Meo, a "renaissance man": actor/writer/guitarist, but also the son of a gangster. Xan is nearing 50, and living a reformed life himself: he no longer drinks or smokes, he is a loving and faithful husband, and the loving father of two young daughters. He had previously been in a destructive marriage and had two sons, but after a far from amicable divorce he has changed his ways. But once a year, on the anniversary of his decision to quit, he heads to a pub and has a few drinks and a few cigarettes. This time, at the pub, he is waylaid by representatives of a crimelord and beaten severely, apparently for "naming" their boss compromisingly, though Meo has no idea how or even who. Meo's beating, and the subsequent brain damage, drastically affects his relationships with his wife and daughters, and also his careers, and he ends up thrown out of his house, with a former porn star turned producer trying to seduce him, and with a job acting (not as a "participant", though) in a porn movie.

Another key thread follows a vile journalist named Clint Smoker, who works for perhaps the worst of the London tabloids, and who despite his monetary success is an abject and humiliating failure with women. He too ends up on the set of the porn film, though as a journalist researching a story. There is also a thread about the King of England, Henry IX, and a crisis involving a secret pornographic videotape of his popular 15 year old daughter, Victoria. Finally, we end up meeting the gangster who has ordered Xan Meo to be beat up, and we learn much of his personal history, and of his financial and personal involvement with the porn industry.

(There is also a strange thread involving an airplane flying from England to the US carrying the coffin of a recently deceased, very rich, man, and also involving the threat of a crash -- I concede I never really figured out what Amis was after with this thread.)

The novel is very entertaining, full of rather savage and often vulgar wordplay, some gaspingly horrid behaviour (especially on the part of the tabloid folks), and some pretty scary things too, especially the degradation of Xan's character. The plot is somewhat intricate, and resolved cleverly and funnily. There are some details about the porn industry that I'm not sure are actually true, but have a horrible ring of possible truth to them. Except for the airplane thread, which as I said I simply didn't get, I thought it worked very well -- a strong, savage novel, not a great work, nor Amis's best, but, I though, pretty darn good.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Birthday Review: Melissa Caitlin Horton Whitman

Today is Melissa Caitlin Whitman (nee Horton)'s 30th birthday! Yay! I wasn't able to write something about James Tiptree, Jr., or Orson Scott Card, or Jorge Luis Borges, or A. S. Byatt ... but here's something about this book Melissa published in 2001, when she was in the fifth grade.

The Jungle, by Melissa Horton (Whitman) (illustrations by the author)

a review by Rich Horton

Thankfully, The Jungle is not about the meat-packing industry in Chicago at roughly the turn of the 20th Century. Instead, it's about a girl named Cara. We meet her as she wakes in a strange place, dressed in her nightgown. Soon she encounters a girl about her own age, Marta -- and she learns that they are both trapped in a book, The Jungle -- and Marta has been there, unaging, for 50 years.

Marta shows Cara how she has survived -- she has built a house from the materials found in the jungle, and learned which foods are edible, and how to hunt and cook the animals. So things go for a while until Cara meets a lion, and is surprised to find that he talks. And the lion tells them that there is a plot by the other talking animals to find the secret way out of the book and terrorize the humans in the real world. The only hope is for Marta, Cara, and their lion friend to find the porthole first -- and figure out how to close off the book from the real world ...

This is an imaginative book, with a neat central concept, reminiscent of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books. Given the limited word count the author was dealing with, the resolution is a bit rapid, but it's a nicely conceived piece. Quite impressive for someone not yet 12 years old!

Also, here's Melissa's dog Sammy:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Old Bestseller: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer

Old Bestseller: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer

a review by Rich Horton

Old Bestseller? Well, sure! You can't get much older than the Canterbury Tales for English literature that can be read by modern English readers. And it's really "sold" well throughout its history -- it was, as far as I can see, recognized as a work of genius from the very first.

Geoffrey Chaucer, of course, is one of the best known writers of all time. And his life was quite well documented for a man of his age, so his biography is fairly familar. He was born in 1342 or 1343 to a reasonably well-off middle class family. He spent much of his life in, essentially, civil service jobs, working for the King, the King's son, the Army, and the port of London. He married Philippa de Roet in 1366, a lady of waiting to the Queen, and the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt. They had three children. He also wrote extensively, and his writing was evidently much appreciated in his time. Besides the Canterbury Tales his most famous work is probably Troilus and Criseyde. He first wrote in French, but soon began writing in English (Middle English, of course), and was a key figure in making English a respectable language for literature. He is credited with inventing iambic pentameter.

The Canterbury Tales were his last work, written between 1387 (when his wife died) and his death in 1400. (Possibly started earlier in the '80s.) Naturally the first editions were in manuscript -- the earliest extant dating to shortly after his death. Gutenberg's printing press was invented in 1439, and the first English printer was William Caxton. The popularity and importance of the Canterbury Tales is evidenced by the fact that the first book Caxton printed after he set up his press in England was the Canterbury Tales. (Ten copies of that printing survive.)

As for my edition of the book, I read a dozen or so of the tales from three separate sources. Primarily, I read a Bantam Classics selection of 8 tales, plus the prologue of course, edited by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt. The editors presented the original Middle English text and their own Modern English translation on facing pages. This book included "The Knight's Tale", "The Miller's Tale", "The Wife of Bath's Tale", "The Merchant's Tale", "The Franklin's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale", "The Prioress' Tale", "The Nun's Priest's Tale". Then I found a cheap copy of a Norton Critical edition, edited by V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. This edition included nine of the tales -- seven in common with the Hieatt's edition, and also "The Reeve's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale". This edition does not include a full translation of the Middle English, but glosses the more obscure words, and also adds Modern English versions of occasional particularly difficult phrases. Finally, having been urged to also read "The Tale of Sir Thopas", I found an online site which includes the entire sequence, all 28 tales, edited by Sinan Kökbugur. (It can be found here: Canterbury Tales Online.) This edition gives the option of a side by side presentation of the Middle English and a modern translation. In this I read "Sir Thopas", and also skimmed "The Tale of Melibee", which are the two stories Chaucer presented as being told by the "Geoffrey Chaucer" figure on the pilgrimage.

For a long time -- since high school, I suppose -- I've known I ought to read at least some of the Canterbury Tales. (Of course, there are lots of books I feel guilty about not having read!) In our English literature class in high school we read a snippet of the prologue in Middle English, and then a Modern English translation of, IIRC, "The Reeve's Tale". So I'm quite glad to have finally rectified this shortfall. I'll say first that the Middle English is actually not too terribly difficult to read. Yes, every so often a phrase just eluded me. And a number of the words do need explication (though I knew a fair amount of them just from having read enough historical fiction set in England.) The thing is, there's no question that it's better to read the original -- most importantly, to be reading Chaucer's poetry. (And this is a poem, mostly -- or a number of long poems, perhaps, with one tale ("The Tale of Melibee") in prose.) I have to ay that I found the Hieatts' translation unsatisfactory -- no real attempt is made to preserve the poetic strengths of Chaucer's work, and on occasion they get a bit annoyingly fussy (as when they ruin a pun on "queynte" as in roughly "quaint" and "queynte" as in, well, in their telling: "where he shouldn't [touch]".) I wonder if a translation that kept to the word order and almost all of the Middle English word choices, but only used modern spelling and very occasional translations of completely incomprehensible words, wouldn't be sufficient.

What do I think of it? It's pretty impressive stuff, really. One of the most obviously notable things is Chaucer's way with voice. The voices of each storyteller are captured in entirely individual ways. I remember reading about a book called, I think, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, in which, if I recall, Bloom claimed something like "Shakespeare changed our conception of human consciousness, to the point that he invented the idea that we have individual consciousness, individual characters." I haven't read the book, so I am probably misstating his argument, but it struck me as absurd on the face of it, and surely Chaucer, writing 2 centuries prior to Shakespeare, but displaying individual characters, as conceptually rich as Shakespeare's, stands as one (of many) counterarguments. The Wife of Bath is probably the most famous of Chaucer's characters, but the cynical Pardoner, and the easily offended Reeve, not to mention the Host, all strike me as nicely portrayed characters. (The characters in the actual tales, however, are often closer to types, and sometimes their motivations are obscure.) I suppose the other general point I might make is that these stories present a pretty dark view of the place of women in that society (and at least some of them are clearly criticisms of that place.) And, relatedly, they are pretty darn full of rape. And one final point, familiar enough -- the funny stories are very funny. ("The Miller's Tale" in particular.)

Short looks at the tales I read:

"The Knight's Tale" -- This is the longest one, over 100 pages in the Bantam edition, 2250 lines. It's set in Athens, when Theseus was the Duke, and his wife was the Amazon Hippolyta. Theseus makes war on Thebes, where Creon is King, and takes it, in the process taking two prisoners, the cousins Arcite and Palamoun. Both see Hippolyta's sister Emelye from the tower in which they are imprisoned, and fall hopelessly in love with her. Then Arcite's freedom is bought, though he must swear never to return to Athens. Of course he does, to be near Emelye, and under another name becomes a servant to Theseus, while Palamoun languishes in prison. Long story short, they end up fighting a battle for Emelye's hand ... Of course, all this time Emelye, a true Amazon at heart, had vowed never to marry, and prays to be released from the duty of marrying whoever wins. To no avail -- after all, she's a woman, and has no say such matters! It's an interesting if at times frustrating tale, somewhat at odds with contemporary sensibilities, not to mention not even trying to portray a plausible Ancient Greece. None of which really matters -- the poem does what it wants to do quite well.

"The Miller's Tale" -- the miller, much gone in drunkenness, insists on telling the next story. It's about a carpenter with a very pretty young wife, Alisoun. He rents a room to a young scholar, Nicholas, who takes a fancy to Alisoun, grabbing her by the "queynte" -- and convincing her to sleep with him. Another young man is fascinated with Alisoun, who has no interest in him. Nicholas arranges a very complicated scheme to get time alone with Alisoun, based on convincing the carpenter that the second Noachian flood is impending. And Alisoun fools her importunate alternate young suitor to kiss her "ers" instead of her lips ... and the result is, pretty much, embarrassment for all, involving a hot poker. This is perhaps the most out and out funny of these tales, and the most sexy too, I suppose.

"The Reeve's Tale", then, responds to "The Miller's Tale". (The reeve was originally a carpenter.) He tells of a crooked miller, who has a pretty wife and a pretty daughter. Two students try to expose his criminal ways (stealing some of the grain he's been paid to mill), but the miller is wise to them. However, the two students have their revenge, by sneaking into the beds of both the miller's wife and their daughter, and having sex with them. (Sex which sure looks a lot like rape.)

Even more explicitely a tale of rape is "The Wife of Bath's Tale". This is set in King Arthur's time, and a knight rapes an innocent virgin, and is sentenced to death. But he gets a reprieve from the Queen, who instead sets him a task to find out what women really want. His travels suggest several answers, none of which suffice, until he meets an ugly old woman, and eventually learns what women really want -- to be allowed their own choice of what they want. As his reward, he marries the old woman -- who magically changes into a beautiful young woman. I admit I was bothered by the way the knight got away with -- indeed was eventually rewarded for -- a quite vile crime. Of course, the real greatness of the Wife of Bath's tale is the prologue, in which she tells of her five husbands, and why she married them, and what she got from her marriages. This part is golden, it's very funny, very knowing, and very revealing of the position of women in England at that time, and of what a strong woman could do to claim more of her due.

"The Merchant's Tale" is another story of extramarital sex, but there's a lot more consent involved. A 60 year old knight, January, decides to marry, finally, and chooses a young girl, about 20, named May. (The names are hardly coincidental.) The story ends up concerning her desire for a young man in her husband's service, and the amusing lengths they go to to have sex. Fun stuff, for sure.

"The Franklin's Tale" was in the end one of my favorites. It tells of a knight in Brittany, Arveragus, and his lady, Dorigen, who make a love match, and who agree to a marriage with fairly equal sharing of power (for that time.) They are very happy, and then Arveragus has to go off to war. Dorigen misses him terribly, and becomes obsessed with the idea he will crash and die on the rocks off her shore. She is victimized by another man, who lusts after her, and who hires a magician to make is seem as if all the rocks off the shores of Brittany have vanished. This man has made her promise that if he can remove the danger to her husband she must allow him to have his way with her. In the end, after Arveragus returns she confesses her trouble to him, and says that her honor requires that she give up her virtue to the other man ... but her example causes this man to retract her promise -- and Arveragus has forgiven her at once, so all ends happily.

"The Pardoner's Tale" is one of the few that don't turn on sex (unlike all those mentioned above.) It's well introduced by its prologue -- the Pardoner is a cynical man, and his job is to swindle people in the name of "pardoning" their sins, so they can go to heaven. (An issue central to the Reformation.) After a discourse on his job, with a certain cynical glee displayed on how easily he makes a living, he tells of three debauched young men, who set off to kill a man they hear of, named Death, who has killed thousands. But on their way they are tempted to betray each other, so that they can claim the entire fortune of the others ... and, inevitably, it is Death who wins again. A pretty strong moral tale.

"The Prioress's Tale" is particularly problematic. As a tale, without context, it's affecting enough -- a very devout young boy is killed by the residents of his town, who are offended by his religious devotion. The problem is that the tale turns on horribly antisemitic lies about Jewish attitudes towards Christians. (Remember that the Jews had been expelled from England about a century before Chaucer wrote this story.) I found it hard to get past the vile depiction of Jews. I understand that some readings suggest that at least in part Chaucer was satirizing the Prioress' excessive assumed piety ... all possibly true, but still hard to get past.

"The Nun's Priest's Tale" is different to the other stories described here. (Though it does, in a sense, involve sex.) It's an animal fable, about Chauntecleer, a rooster, with seven wives. He has a dream that he will be eaten by a fox, and confesses his fear to his favorite wife. She poo-poos his concern, so he ventures out -- only to encounter a sly fox, who almost manages to trick Chauntecleer into getting eaten. Fortunately, Chauntecleer is able to escape, and to resist the fox's attempts to lure him back. Pretty enjoyable stuff, with, as usual for Chaucer, lots of interesting elaborations of the context, with allusions to older stories.

The two extra stories I read (besides "The Reeve's Tale", interpolated above), were "The Tale of Sir Thopas" ("Thopas" meaning Topaz), and "The Clerk's Tale". The latter was pretty interesting. It tells of a well-respected man, Walter, who has refused to marry. He is finally convinced to choose a wife in order to get an heir. He chooses a very poor woman, Griselda, and, taking advantage of her low status, makes her promise to obey him without question. They have children, a girl and then a boy, and Walter in each case tells Griselda he has decided to kill the child, but instead sends them off secretly to be raised by friends of his. Griselda is convinced they are dead, but accedes to Walter's wishes due to her vow. Finally, Walter tells Griselda he is tired of her, and will remarry. He says he has chosen a young woman, and has his daughter (accompanied by her brother) summoned home, and seems ready to marry her. Of course, all is resolved, and Walter admits his deception, and declares himself pleased with his wife's faithfulness, and they live happily ever after, reunited with their children. I have to admit, I was pretty disgusted with Walter's torture of Griselda.

Finally, "The Tale of Sir Thopas" is one of two tales supposedly told by Chaucer himself, at the host's bidding. It's essentially a parody of over the top tales of knightly valor, as Sir Thopas, in an effort to woo the elf-queen, undertakes a series of quests -- portrayed in a galumphing sort of rhythm, with sing-song rhyming. The host is soon disgusted, and insists Chaucer stop, so we never see the end of the tale. It's obviously parodic, and the use of the Chaucer figure for the teller is part of the fun.

Birthday Review: The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

Today would have been Ray Bradbury's 99th birthday. In his honor, I've uncovered something I wrote back in 2001 about Bradbury's first two collections. I had had an ambiguous relationship to Bradbury's fiction -- I really liked Fahrenheit 451, which I read in high school, 1974 or so. But we were assigned Dandelion Wine in 8th grade English, and our teacher told us that, as young boys living in northern Illinois, we should just LOVE Dandelion Wine, because it was about a young boy living in northern Illinois. That just rubbed me the wrong way, and I read about the first 20 pages, and stopped. And still got an A on the test by listening closely to class discussions. Anyway, for whatever reason I ended up adopting the attitude of Millhouse from The Simpsons to Bradbury: "I am aware of his work." Which is, of course, unfair, because his best work was really quite wonderful, as I hope this review shows.

Rereading Ray Bradbury

In my conscientious attempt to fairly nominate stories from 1950 for the Retro Hugo, I noticed that quite a few of Ray Bradbury's stories were eligible. In fact, he published some 15 stories in 1950, many of them rather good. He also published The Martian Chronicles in 1950. The following year came The Illustrated Man, which included several of the pieces from 1950. I selected a few stories from the list of 1950 stories that I vaguely remembered as being good and put them on my list. I figured I'd reread them and decide which if any to nominate for a Retro Hugo, given that my specific memories of the stories were quite vague. I believe I read both The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man back in the Golden Age, when I was 12 or 13. (I.e., about 1972-1973.) At any rate, my Bantam edition of The Illustrated Man is a 1972 printing, and I have an odd image of myself reading "The Veldt" in a junior high classroom.

So I started in, picking out the stories I'd highlighted. Then I realized I might as well read all the 1950 stories -- from which point the step to just rereading the entire books was obvious. (It also occurred to me that The Martian Chronicles is quite as eligible for "Best Novel" as, say, The Dying Earth, another collection of linked stories.)

Upon rereading The Martian Chronicles I soon appreciated that I hardly remembered the book at all. About all that survived were memories of "The Third Expedition" (which I would have reread in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame as "Mars is Heaven!"), and memories of the closing image of book, the last lines of "The Million Year Picnic", where the family looks into the waters of the canal and sees their reflections: the new Martians (an image which reminded me of the last line of Kim Stanley Robinson's great novella "Green Mars": "A new creature stands on the summit of green Mars." [Paraphrased from memory, that might not be the exact quote.])

The Martian Chronicles consists of stories published in the pulps (Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder, etc.) and a couple of slicks (Collier's, Charm and MacLean's) between 1946 and 1950, as well as a few stories original to the book, and lots of linking material, half a page to a couple of pages in between the longer stories. The last story in the book, "The Million Year Picnic", was the first published, in the Summer 1946 Planet Stories. (It's also one of the best stories.) As far as I can tell, "The Million Year Picnic" is Bradbury's first significant story, and in my opinion little he published after the early '50s was significant either. Thus, as I see it, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451 (which expands a 1951 novelette) are close to all the essential Bradbury. (I know there are advocates of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I haven't read, and I certainly concede there are some fine later stories: i.e. "All Summer in a Day" from 1954.) Five years, maybe ten, of top rate work -- but that's more than lots of folks get.

(For the record, I'm not going to worry about spoilers in the following paragraphs.) The stories in the book are supposedly a unified account of the colonization of Mars by men from Earth, but in reality there are many inconsistencies. I doubt he wrote them (to begin with) intending them all to be one narrative. The first few stories tell of the resistance of the dying race of Martians to the coming of the Earthmen. For example, in "Ylla" the title character, a Martian female, has erotic telepathic dreams of the coming Earthmen, so her husband, jealous, kills them as soon as they land. The second expedition, in "The Earth Men", is regarded as simply insane Martians who have delusions of being from Earth, and eventually the Martian psychiatrist kills them for their own good. It's a bit strained and silly -- a lesser story. "The Third Expedition", one of the most famous stories, and a very good one, has the Martians impersonating lost parents and other loved ones of the Earth crew, luring them to a sense of safety, after which they are killed. There is no consistency, really, between these stories (except for some (possibly added for the book) references in the later stories to the lost earlier expeditions). By the fourth expedition, however, chicken pox carried by the members of the first three expeditions has almost wiped out the Martian population. "- and the Moon be Still as Bright" tells movingly of the bitter response of one sensitive human to the vulgarity of his fellow explorers. The next sequence of stories deals with the human colonists who follow. The best stories here feature encounter with the remnants of the Martians: the very best of these is "The Martian", which strikingly foreshadows the shapechangers of Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus. A Martian is impelled by the yearning of a colonist couple for their dead son to take on his shape -- but when he meets other humans he shifts to the shapes of people they are looking for. I think this is one of the high points of this collection. Contrariwise, Bradbury is at his worst when he is most didactic, as in "Way In the Middle of the Air", in which all the black people in the U.S. (or at any rate the South) rather implausibly up and head for Mars (the logistics of this move are needless to say not considered). This story doesn't fit the rest of the book well at all -- I think it is better regarded as a companion to a story in The Illustrated Man, "The Other Foot", which features the white people of the Earth coming to Mars years later and begging to be allowed to work for the black Martian colonists because Earth has destroyed itself in a nuclear war.

Another story that doesn't really seem to belong in the book is "Usher II", a well-known story, indeed a pretty good one. This has Bradbury riding another of his hobbyhorses: censorship of imaginative literature. (He revisits this in "The Exiles" from The Illustrated Man, and of course in Fahrenheit 451.) In "Usher II" imaginative literature has been banned on Earth, and the Moral Climate people are coming to Mars. A couple of vengeful men who love Poe and Beirce and Lovecraft and all the rest build a replica of Poe's House of Usher and arrange a special party for a number of censorship-minded people -- with a number of treats courtesy Edgar Allan Poe's imagination. It's a neat story, but it doesn't belong in The Martian Chronicles at all.

The final set of stories deals with the postwar SFnal default assumption that a Nuclear War was inevitable. (It is really striking how absolutely that seemed to be believed, at least based on the futures depicted in stories from about 1946 to 1960.) Nuclear war breaks out on Earth, and almost the entire population of Mars returns to Earth to help with the war. (Which Bradbury seemed to find wholly obvious, and which I find ridiculous.) A couple of stories deal with people who were left behind by mistake -- "The Silent Towns" is a rather offensive story about a lonely man who finally finds the one woman who was left behind, and who is disgusted by her because she is fat and vulgar. "The Long Years" is much better, about an archaeologist and his family who were stranded on Mars for the 20 years the War went on. "There Will Come Soft Rains" is another of Bradbury's best stories: it's set on Earth, as an automated house dwindles to decay after a nuclear blast has killed its inhabitants. Finally, "The Million Year Picnic" is about a family which escapes from war-torn Earth and sets out to Mars to make a new life. It's a brilliant, moving, conclusion to the book.

I ended up pretty impressed by The Martian Chronicles as a whole. As I've said, the stories are really only tenuously linked, and rather clumsily. Regarded as a story arc, the whole thing is highly implausible, and less powerful than if regarded as simply a collection of stories that happen to deal with humans coming to Mars. (Except for "There Will Come Soft Rains", which is really purely a "Nuclear War" story and not linked to the rest of the book at all.) As with any collection, there are high and low points, but the best stories here retain their power -- "Ylla", "- and the Moon Be Still as Bright", "The Third Expedition", "Usher II", "There Will Come Soft Rains", and perhaps especially "The Martian" and "The Million Year Picnic" are really outstanding pieces. Bradbury's prose is solid, full of fine imagery, much as advertised, though while the imagery is fine the "music" of the prose, the voice, is just decent.

The Illustrated Man has an even more tenuous linking device -- the man of the title, who has "living" tattoos all over his body, tattoos which seem to predict the future. The stories collected are again pretty solid, for the most part. "The Veldt" is a famous story about a sort of virtual reality playroom which becomes too real. A couple stories are set on Mars, and could almost have been shoehorned into The Martian Chronicles. I have already mentioned "The Other Foot" as a sort of sequel to "Way in the Middle of the Air". "The Fire Balloons" is about a missionary coming to Mars and trying to minister to the strange balloonlike Martians -- but they end up ministering to him instead. "The Exiles" is another anti-censorship piece, and a fine one -- after Earth has outlawed imaginative literature, the "spirits" of the authors, people like Poe, have miraculously gathered on Mars -- but now an expedition is heading from Earth to Mars. It's a really wacky idea, but effectively handled. Another religiously oriented story is "The Man", about an expedition from Earth which arrives at an alien planet just after a very special man came. "The Fox and the Forest" is a time travel story, with a couple from the future escaping oppression by hiding in Mexico in 1938. "Marionettes, Inc." is a predictable but effective story of a man trying to cheat on his wife by fooling her with an android substitute for himself. "Kaleidoscope" is a famous and effective story about a rocket ship blowing up and the spacemen descending to the Earth's surface as meteors -- focussing on the dying thoughts of one of the men. "The City" is a nice SF horror piece about a city on an alien planet, waiting for just the right visitors. "Zero Hour" is another horror piece, about kids helping out an alien invasion. With "The Veldt" this story shares a rather dark view of children and their interaction with parents. In sum, this is a fine collection, though I'd say that The Martian Chronicles is over all the better book.

Reading over my lists of the best of Bradbury's stories, I am struck by how many of his best pieces are essentially horror stories. "The Third Expedition", "Usher II", "The Exiles", "The Veldt", "The City", "Marionettes, Inc.", "Zero Hour" -- all essentially horror, often quite spooky. A case could be made for "There Will Come Soft Rains", "No Particular Night or Morning", and "The Martian" also being called horror. I guess that isn't really a surprise, given Bradbury's reputation.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Lucius Shepard

I suppose it would be fair to say my relationship with Lucius Shepard's fiction was fraught. Perhaps it was influenced by my very minimal online contacts with him, in which he was purely and simply an asshole. (Many of my friends have spoken much more kindly of him, and I dare say he was very good to a lot of people. All I can suggest is that possibly they weren't people who occasionally wrote less than adulatory reviews of his work -- and I can only add, that the testimony of those who knew him personally is more important than mine. He didn't know me, and he got mad (I assume) at my reviews. That's not precisely unusual for a writer. I could add ... but I won't.) At any rate -- Shepard was a writer who at his best was truly brilliant, and who at his worst was pretty awful. That's no crime. He tended to go on too long, and he tended to repeat himself too much from story to story. His prose was that sort that gets overpraised by SF readers -- lots of big words, some of which worked. The relationships his male characters had with women seemed seriously messed up to me -- there was a lot of "Madonna/Whore" confusion in his depiction of his women characters. And yet, when he was on, his imagination was really exciting, and when his prose was focussed, it was impressive.

Locus, February 2002

January's Sci Fiction offering is a novella in four parts, "Over Yonder" by Lucius Shepard. This new story is a bit different for him. It begins as a story about Billy Long Gone, an alcoholic hobo who disappears one night, chasing a stranger who seems to have stolen his dog. Billy ends up with the stranger on a curious, living, train, headed into a wholly different world. He is himself reborn, no longer an alcoholic, in much better health. And this world, called Yonder, is in some ways a paradise -- food and housing for a couple of hundred "escaped" hobos are readily available.  But Billy soon finds that life in Yonder is rather stagnant, even as he rekindles an old romance.  When he further learns how dangerous Yonder can be, he wonders if he ought to hop a train and go further -- over the mountains beyond Yonder, where others have gone, but none have returned.  The eventual message is rather banal, if honest enough. The prose seems a bit less indulgent than in some of Shepard's other recent novellas, which is all to the good. Shepard's inventions for Yonder are interesting enough (and a bit reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll): the predatory beardsleys, for example, which attack the living trains; or the mysterious fishing Elders; but those inventions don't necessarily seem part of a greater whole. I suppose this story either needed to be somewhat longer, elaborating the world, or somewhat shorter -- but if not completely satisfying, it's still well worth reading.

Locus, March 2003

February was a strong month for Sci Fiction. Lucius Shepard's "Senor Volto" is pretty much standard latter-day Shepard: Latin American setting, casual violence, doomed sex, strange airborned beings. The title character is an itinerant entertainer who straps himself to a battery and deals electric shocks to men interested in proving their machismo. He tells of his life as a cuckolded hotel owner, how he came to be "Senor Volto", and the strange insights he gained in the process.

The best pieces in the March Asimov's are Stephen Baxter's "The Great Game" and Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here". ...  Shepard's story is the best of the few SF stories I've seen to date which directly tackle 9/11. It's very subdued for Shepard, which I have become convinced is a positive sign. A young man working on a WTC cleanup crew meets a woman in a bar, and over several days they help each other deal with their different issues re the 9/11 tragedy. Of course, something else is going on, and Shepard springs his (in retrospect predictable and perhaps a bit too sentimental) surprise very nicely indeed.

Locus, July 2003

Finally, June at Sci Fiction is given over to a long Lucius Shepard novella, "Jailwise". A serial con hears of a strange jail in Northern California, and manages to be transferred there. The jail is isolated from the rest of the world, it seems, and is inhabited by various levels of inmates, and by "plushes", men who seem to be women at times, and who act as prostitutes for the rest of the jail. The narrator's artistic ability leads him to be commissioned to create a mural in commemoration of the long expected "new wing", and his growing knowledge of the place leads him to grudgingly except that this may be leading to some sort of strange transformation or redemption, while his growing love for one of the "plushes" leads him to wonder what she or he really is. I found this more interesting than many of Shepard's recent stories, but just a bit disappointing in resolution – perhaps I expected too much, but the story seemed to promise something spectacular and settle for half-measures. Still, a solid piece of work, one of the better recent Shepard stories.

Locus, September 2003

August at Sci Fiction was a decent but not spectacular month. Lucius Shepard is back, with a solid story in much his usual manner. "A Walk in the Garden" is about a soldier in near-future Iraq who investigates a strange formation unexpectedly opened by American military operations. The locals say it is Paradise, but to an American it might be rather the opposite ...

Locus, November 2003

The other novellas in the October-November Asimov's are "Ariel", by Lucius Shepard, and "Welcome to Mt. Olympus, Mr. Hearst", by Kage Baker. The first is a pretty good story of battle across dimensions that made me think of Poul Anderson's The Corridors of Time. Shepard's main character is a history professor searches for a backwoods West Virginia creature who just might be a refugee from a parallel world. Entertaining stuff, but I thought it perhaps too unbelievable, and also marred by Shepard's curiously hyperromantic and sentimental view of male/female relations.

Locus, January 2004

Sci Fiction for December features a Lucius Shepard novella plus a Christmas novelette from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Shepard's "Liar's House" is a new Dragon Griaule story: welcome news! It tells of a rather thuggish man who has fled to the village Teocinte, close by the paralyzed dragon, after committing several murders. Near Griaule he sees another dragon, which seems to transform into a woman, and he finds himself compelled into a relationship with her, in the end chosen to father a child for Griaule.

Locus, September 2005

Sci Fiction for August features a long story by Lucius Shepard, "Abimagique",... Shepard's story is nice work, about a student who falls for a very strange woman named Abimagique. Naturally, there is lots of great sex, and a sinister secret. I must say I thought it all tosh, but entertaining tosh.

Locus, January 2006

Lucius Shepard’s “The Emperor” (Sci Fiction, 12/05) is entirely characteristic of his work, at least the science fictional half: a competent, sensitive, and damaged man in a hellish Alaskan mine tries to escape after the AIs and robots operating the place seem to go mad. In so doing he is forced to confront his inability to love, and to come to grips with potential transcendence. Shepard dangles always on the edge of self-parody – here I think he goes just slightly over the edge.

Locus, April 2007

Lucius Shepard’s “Dead Money” (Asimov's, April-May) concerns a small time criminal who brings a mysterious poker player to the attention of a more influential gangster. The poker player is a zombie, controlled by a woman for whom the criminal soon falls. The gangster has a use for the poker player, and the whole ménage ends up on a Florida estate, for a climactic poker game. It’s often quite funny – Shepard can be a very funny writer when he wants to be (not often enough) – and it has an absolutely dead perfect ending, which really makes the story work. No question the story has some of Shepard’s weakness – it’s too long, the prose is sometimes careless – but in the end Shepard brings it off very well.

Locus, October 2009

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I saw a few edge cases in the huge 60th Anniversary issue of F&SF, a magazine that declares the possibility of combining SF and Fantasy in its title. And so we have “Halloween Town” by Lucius Shepard, to my mind his best story this year. Shepard opens by writing “This is the story of Clyde Ormoloo and the willow wan, but it’s also the story of Halloween, the spindly, skinny town that lies along the bottom of the Shilkonic Gorge, …” Halloween’s geography makes it sort of two dimensional – the rooms of the houses are arranged vertically, like toy blocks, up the sides of the gorge. It has a narrow economy as well, based on steeped walnuts and on the largesse of an eccentric rock star, Pet Nylund. Clyde Ormoloo is a 40ish construction worker who gained increased intelligence and a mysterious ability to see into the minds of others in an accident, and he is driven to move to Halloween. The story itself concerns the political structure of Halloween, which at first seems a generally nice place but which turns out inevitably to have a darker side, and also Clyde’s growing and dangerous relationship with “the willow wan”, a strange girl who turns out to have been Pet Nylund’s girlfriend. Both these strands are well enough resolved, though a little anti-climactically (the end struck me as honest but something of a letdown). What I liked most, however, were the descriptions of Halloween, and the not entirely serious telling of the story – Shepard is usually better when he doesn’t take himself entirely seriously. As for the SF/Fantasy question: in many ways the story reads fantastically, and the town, ostensibly located somewhere in the contemporary US, is clearly not real (and implausible), but almost every element is explained quasi-plausibly (with the exception, to my mind, of Clyde’s mysterious new vision). I’d say it’s a story that doesn’t much care whether it’s SF or Fantasy.

Locus, November 2009

Another fine big anthology is Songs of the Dying Earth, a celebration of Jack Vance via a host of stories set in his most famous milieu. Almost every story here is entertaining, many very much so, but none quite seems brilliant to me. The best of the lot is probably Lucius Shepard’s "Sylgarmo's Proclamation", which marries Shepard’s voice and an imitation of Vance’s voice to very good effect. As for the plot, a man is approached by certain individuals desiring revenge on Cugel the Clever, and he is induced to guide them to a remote tower to confront Vance’s famous antihero – Shepard is suitably inventive as to the complications that ensue.

Locus review of Teeth (August 2011)

Lucius Shepard’s “Slice of Life” gets its Florida milieu perfect, in telling of a teenaged girl with a reputation who falls in with a vampire woman who wants her to bring her five people to consume, to restore her power, and to resist vampire killing creatures called Djadadjii.

Locus review of Ghosts by Gaslight (September 2011)

Lucius Shepard’s “Rose Street Attractors”, in which the narrator, an alienist named Prothero, is inveigled by Jeffrey Richmonda fellow club member into investigating the case of the apparent haunting, by his sister, of the whorehouse he inherited after his sister’s mysterious death. The “steampunk” aspect is a device intended to clean London’s fog, which indeed seems to attract ghosts. Other complications include a darker side to Richmond’s relationship with his sister, and Prothero’s love affair with one of the remaining prostitutes … in all, it’s quite entertaining, and rather gentler than usual for Shepard.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Another Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Greg Egan

The great Greg Egan had a recent birthday which I missed due to a trip I took. But it's not too late to catch up, with a selection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction. Alas, I wasn't writing these in the '90s, when he fully erupted on the SF scene -- some of my favorite SF short stories ever are among his '90s work, including above all "Wang's Carpets", truly on the the best SF novelettes ever. This selection also doesn't include my look at his latest Analog story, "The Slipway", from the July-August issue, which is very fine work.

Locus, June 2002

The February Interzone leads with Greg Egan's novella "Singleton". This story brings to mind predecessors like "All the Myriad Ways" by Larry Niven, and "Divided by Infinity" by Robert Charles Wilson, as its protagonist deals with the idea that the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics is true. That is, any decision we make we made all possible ways, in different universes. For Niven's protagonist, the resulting question was "Why do anything?" For Egan's hero, Ben, the problem is a feeling of guilt: he is living a fairly happy life, presumably the result of having made some fairly good decisions. How does he deserve this, while his counterparts in alternate universes are condemned to whatever misery resulted from "wrong" decisions?

Locus, April 2006

Greg Egan’s “Riding the Crocodile” (One Million A. D.) is intriguing enough, but somehow doesn’t quite have the spark of his best work. It’s about a posthuman couple trying to cap a very long life by contacting the mysterious civilization called the Aloof in the Galaxy’s core.

Locus, September 2007

Greg Egan seems to be fully back in the field after years helping people entangled in Australia’s refugee mess: last year we saw a fine novella, and this year there has been a new story in Dozois and Strahan’s The New Space Opera and now “Dark Integers” in the October-November Asimov’s. This is a sequel to his earlier story “Luminous”, in which a small group of mathematical researchers discovered that the mathematical rules of our universe aren’t constant – and that finding other “true” rules implies finding a parallel universe. Worse, the two universes don’t interact well – the imposition of “our” mathematical truth is destructive to them and vice versa. As this story opens, the three people in on this secret have been maintaining a sort of DMZ between the two universes with the help of someone in the other universe for over a decade. But now there are hints that someone else may have stumbled on this mathematical curiosity – which could be very dangerous to the other universe. And likewise very dangerous to us, if they choose to retaliate. The story concerns attempts to explain some new notions about the maths behind this idea – interesting notions but not that easy to follow. But the state of hopeless war implied between two incompatible universes is depressing as described. And while I can’t really believe in the basic idea, it is delightfully loopy and original – simply different enough that we know we’re reading Egan. The story works for its weird SFnal interest – and it also works in sadly depicting two sides who can’t trust each other.

Locus, October 2007

“Induction”, by Greg Egan (Foundation #100), about the eventual results of an unmanned probe to another star system. The story primarily follows a woman who works on the original launch, and who gets a surprising offer when the probe responds from the new system. The message is a fairly central SFnal message – certainly one expressed by many other stories – but Egan’s presentation is up to the current date and plausible.

Locus, June 2008

Interzone in April features a new Greg Egan story, sort of a modern day “Microcosmic God”. In “Crystal Nights” a brilliant rich man, Daniel Cliff, sponsors an attempt to breed intelligent beings insides a computer. The goal is simply AI, but the forced evolution he plans to use raises the question: What do we owe artificial beings we “create”, even if they are a simulation? If we create them in conditions which require their death, are we murderers? Cliff is forced to confront that idea, but his attempts to evade it have concomitant problems. The story sharply examines the basic moral issues, cleverly suggests eventual unexpected consequences, and also speculates buzzingly on computer and biological (and combined) means of evolving intelligence.

Locus, January 2016

This month we get two truly exceptional novellas – either one would be a wholly worthy Hugo winner. From the December Asimov's we get Greg Egan's “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, tense political SF set in the Asteroid Belt. The politics are appropriately and believable futuristic (though as one might expect you can draw analogies to present day (and decades or centuries past!) political battles – and I suspect different people will draw different parallels, for me an indication that the story is more about real human action than in grinding any contemporary ax). We open with a woman from Vesta setting out on a trip to Ceres, hidden in a piece of rock, part of the economic link between the two asteroids: Vesta getting ice in exchange for rock. We learn the back story: a portion of the Vestan community has been ostracized by a new political movement for the supposed economic sins of their ancestors. (There is an intriguing economic and philosophical debate encapsulated there, that I'll leave for the reader to unpack, but it's Sfnally zingy all by itself.) Many of the persecuted Vestans are escaping to Ceres in the “river of rock”. Most of the rest of the story unfolds in parallel on Vesta, as Anna, the woman in charge of handling the new arrivals to Ceres, deals with them and in particular with a terrible decision she is forced to make; and in the past on Vesta, as we learn about the political changes there, and in particular the acts of a resistance group. Egan sets up an almost impossible political dilemma – with true villains but with no easy answers on how to deal with them; and with good (but not perfect) people faced with no-win situations.

Locus, August 2017

A new Greg Egan piece is always worth your time. In for August he offers “Uncanny Valley”. This is the story of Adam, who we soon gather is a recreated version of a famous writer, based on memory uploads and the like. Adam faces opposition from his original’s family, and from the law, which doesn’t recognize his personhood, but the emotional center of the story concerns his realization that he isn’t his original – and why; as well as his encounter with his original’s husband’s family in El Salvador.

Locus, January 2018

Greg Egan is back again in the November-December Asimov’s, with “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”. This follows a man who loses his job to an AI – and who begins to suspect the AI’s were programmed using his skills. His wife is a nurse, and supports them while he looks hopelessly for a job, and encounters others in the same boat, including a conspiracy nut who claims to have evidence that the AIs have taken over everything. That’s crazy, of course, but his wife loses her job as well, and teachers … the story quietly works its way to a subtle conclusion that resonates with today’s economy, and also reflects on what makes human lives worthwhile.

Locus, October 2018

As usual there is a certain focus on Halloween-themed stories in the September-October Asimov’s, and the cover novella comes from a writer one hardly expects to be working in that mode. But, indeed, Greg Egan’s “3-Adica” does open in a foggy Victorian London of sorts, and Sagreda and her lover Mathis do encounter dangerous vampires. But it’s quickly clear we’re in an Eganesque milieu – a simulated world, based in this case on a fairly lame fantasy novel. But Sagreda and Mathis are searching for a different world entirely – it seems they’ve learned the trick secret of hacking the operating systems of their host machines to jump to different simulations, and they are looking for a world based on the (real) math game 3-adica. Their reasons lie in their real nature, which we learn along the way, and 3-adica, when they get there, is a mathematically fascinating environment. (I was reminded a bit of “Wang’s Carpets” as described in that much earlier Egan story, one of his very best.) The story itself comes to a solid conclusion, with a slingshot – and I gather there is more coming in this milieu. Strong work.

Locus, April 2019

Asimov’s for March-April has a novella from Greg Egan, “Instantiation”, sequel to last year’s “3-adica”. The intelligent “non-playing characters” from the previous story, led by Sagreda, realize that the gaming platform on which they’ve carved out space is in trouble, and may become obsolete. They need to look for a way out to a different platform, which involves some intriguing stuff, such as impersonating Kurt Godel … even more intriguing, I think, is the new platform for which Sagreda is aiming.

Locus, June 2019

Greg Egan’s new long novella (or short novel) is Perihelion Summer. A black hole has been detected entering the Solar System. Depending on how close it comes to Earth, the effects can range from nothing much to massive floods to total destruction. Or what eventuates: a slight perturbation of Earth’s orbit, so that winters are significantly colder and summers hotter. Matt is involved in a small group experimenting with a self-sufficient floating “fish farm”, and his group decides to take their “floating island”, the Mandjet, to sea as the black hole comes, figuring that if the worst (or almost worst) happen that will be the safest place. Over three sections, we follow his efforts, and the reaction of the rest of the world to the disaster, and the ways in which the Mandjet and the people who end up there try to cope – mostly technologically but also socially – with an unexpectedly fraught future. This is neat stuff, with some intriguing sort of small-scale tech, a good bit of Kim Stanley Robinson-style technocratic problem solving (with a bit less optimism than Robinson usually manages), and it’s fascinating reading as well – the sort of book where welding becomes a suspenseful event.

Belated Birthday Review: The Dalemark Quartet, by Diana Wynne Jones

(Cover by Yvonne Gilbert)
Diana Wynne Jones was born 16 August 1934, and died in 2011. She was an exceptional writer of Fantasy, best known for her Young Adult work, but also for some very good work aimed at adults. (And it should be noted that most of her YA books are definitely "to please adults", and the best of them are as complex and challenging, perhaps more so, than most so-called "adult novels".)

In belated recognition of her birthday (hey, I was out of town!) here are four short reviews of the books in her Dalemark Quartet.

Cart and Cwidder

(Cover by Juliet Stanwell Smith)
Cart and Cwidder is the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which ran to four. Dalemark is a fairly obvious version of Wales.  Indeed, the book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander, though not the Prydain books (set in a version of Wales), but rather the Westmark books, as they share, very roughly, tech level, and interest in politics.

This book concerns an 11-year old boy named Moril, a musician traveling with his family. They earn their money by stopping at towns and villages and playing songs. They also pass news among the people of Dalemark, and take passengers : they and other musicians are the only people who regularly travel between the northern and southern parts of the land, which are at the point of war. The south in particular is being severely repressed by the Earls (there has been no King for some time), and a spy called the Porter is wanted. The family consists of their jolly father Clennen, their beautiful, aristocratic mother Lenina, the talented 15-year old songwriter son Dagner, and a 12-year old girl, Brid, in addition to Moril. The title refers to the cart they live and travel in, and to the main musical instruments they use, "cwidders", which seem guitar-like (is cwidder a cognate for guitar?), and one of which may have magical powers.

On the journey in question, they pick up a rather mysterious traveller, Kialan, a boy of roughly Dagner's age. He has a tendency to disappear when they pass through villages. Then, near the castle of Lenina's former fiance, some men show up and murder Clennen. Abruptly, Lenina heads to her ex-fiance's house, as he has long promised to marry her if she is ever free. But the children recognize one of the murderers as a guest at the house, and they decide to head on their own to the North.  On their way, they find more trouble, and eventually they learn that war is closer to hand than they thought. Can it be stopped?

It's very readable and involving -- I'm not sure DWJ can be other than readable and involving. But it shares with much YA fantasy a certain thinness in the background. DWJ's best work, such as Fire and Hemlock, seems much more completely imagined, more complex in characterization, theme, and morality. This book is fun, and not without real tension and characterization, but it seems minor compared to my favorites among her work. I will be buying the rest of the Dalemark books, however.

Drowned Ammet

(Cover by Geoff Taylor)
#2 is Drowned Ammet, which is set roughly contemporaneously with the first book, Cart and Cwidder. In this book we meet Alhammitt, or Mitt, a poor boy from the far southern town of Holand, who becomes somewhat radicalized when his father and mother are thrown out of their farm for capricious reasons by the tax collector for the evil Earl Hadd, and later his father's involvement with the Free Holanders goes terribly wrong, leaving Mitt and his feckless mother alone.  Mitt grows up a sailor and later a gunsmith's apprentice, and plots to gain revenge on both the Free Holanders (for betraying his father) and on Earl Hadd (for pretty much everything) by killing the Earl and implicating the Free Holanders. But this plot too goes terribly wrong, and Mitt ends up on a yacht with the two of the Earl's grandchildren, heading for the North.  I liked this book quite a bit -- Jones' puts her characters (Mitt and the two noble children) under great stress -- not just physical danger but she pushes them to see their own sever personal faults, and this works very well. The plot is nicely resolved, albeit with a bit of convenience, maybe with a bit more magical help than I like, and with a plot twist that even though I saw it coming, I could hardly believe she had the effrontery to exercise. (And I thought it just a shade unfair.)  All told, though, a very nice book, and coupled with the first clearly part of a series, but reasonably well contained too. 

The Spellcoats

(Cover by Ruth Sanderson)
The third book in Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet is The Spellcoats. This book is set in the prehistory of Dalemark, hundreds or thousands of years prior to the action of the first two books (and, I assume, the fourth). It deals with a family of children: Robin, Gull, Hern, Mallard (or Duck), and the narrator, Tanaqui, who is presented as weaving the entire story into the title "spellcoats". The so-called "Heathens" have invaded their land, and Gull and their father are recruited to fight -- a war from which Gull returns apparently mad, and their father not at all.  At the same time, the children face hostility from their fellow villagers, because they are bright-haired like the Heathens. As an enormous flood strikes the village, they are forced to flee down the great River to the Sea. Along the way they receive mysterious advice from their dead Mother, and from a strange man, who seems to be a wizard, and who Robin falls in love with.  They learn that an evil wizard, Kankredin, awaits at the mouth of the river, and that he seems to be calling Gull to him. After encounters with both Kankredin and the young King of the Heathens, they head back upriver with their own King, and with their strangely changed "Undying" figure.  All the children must learn their own surprising destinies, and the true nature of their Undying, of their Mother, of the "wizard" Tanamil, of Kankredin and their River. 

Magic is closer to the surface in this book than in the other two, and the events closer to mythical events.  It is partly a nation-formation tale -- it becomes clear that this is the story of how Dalemark as Dalemark came to be -- as such, an important set up, I would guess, for the final volume, which presumably will concern the reunification of the sundered Kingdom. Perhaps because it's such a "mythical" book, it's also darker, and perhaps grander, than the first two book.  All in all, another very fine DWJ story.

The Crown of Dalemark

(Cover by David Wyatt)
The concluding volume is The Crown of Dalemark. Oddly, this book didn't appear until 14 years after the last of the preceding three: in 1993. Yet it's not an afterthought -- the series clearly needed a closing volume -- I wonder why DWJ waited so long.  At any rate it's a solid conclusion, much longer than the first three books, a bit darker in tone (though really all four books have dark overtones), and a logical and different than expected resolution to the events set up in the first books.

There are two main characters in this book -- Mitt, also one of the heroes of book 2 (Drowned Ammet), and Maewen, a girl from the future of Dalemark -- a time very roughly corresponding to our own time in terms of technological development. Maewen, while visiting her father (her parents are separated), meets a couple of strange individuals. One, she soon learns, is Kankredin, the evil wizard from The Spellcoats, while the other is another of the Undying. This character maneuvers her back into the past, to take the place of Noreth, a girl from Mitt's time who looks just like Maewen. Noreth was a descendant of the rightful King of Dalemark, and she had planned to find the four objects that only the King can use (a cup, a ring, a sword, and a crown) and reclaim the Crown of Dalemark and reunite the sundered kingdom.  But Noreth disappeared before she could accomplish this, and Maewen must walk the roads of Dalemark to find these objects in her place. The powers that be, naturally enough, oppose Noreth's quest, and she is stalked by assassins. One of these is Mitt, who is blackmailed by his Northern hosts into going after Noreth -- but after meeting her Mitt refuses, and soon he joins her tiny entourage, along with the hero of Book 1 (Cart and Cwidder): Moril the Singer, as well as another Singer, and the clever but perhaps not trustworthy southern nobleman who was also exiled to the North with Mitt, and the Undying who has sent Maewen here.

Maewen, Mitt, and the others wander about the countryside, often in rather magical fashion, tracking down the four objects, but also trying to elude the assassins, and eventually armies, which are trying to stop.  Maewen's only goal is to give the objects to the man she knows became king: Amil the Great, the man who more or less singlehandedly founded modern Dalemark.  But who could he be?  There is no sign of him.  The resolution is surprising and rather effective. Jones makes excellent use of the rather unusual magic "system" (though it's not really systematic, and is perhaps more effective for that) that she has established, especially the Undying, who are like gods but not by any means omnipotent or even all-knowing.  The four books represent a very solid work of YA fantasy.