Monday, September 30, 2019

Birthday Review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling (plus two shorts)

S. M. Stirling turned 66 today, so I decided to exhume this review I wrote a while ago about his novel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, along with a couple of brief looks at short stories from my Locus column.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling

a review by Rich Horton

I was surprised to realize that I've actually not previously read a Stirling novel. I confess the premise of the Draka series turned me off -- I don't dispute that the stories might be enjoyable and well done, but I didn't want to read them. In a different way, the Island in the Sea of Time books aren't either my cup of tea. I did read some stories set in his Dies the Fire universe, and had I more time I might have gotten to the novels, but I didn't. However, his new series appeals quite openly to my inner Golden Age of SF fan. I had been considering getting the first, The Sky People, but hadn't got around to it. So instead I began with book 2 of the series (I'm not sure there will be any more -- there doesn't need to be, but there could be). This novel opens with a rather unbearably twee prologue set at an SF convention in 1962. The viewpoint character is named Fred (wink wink nudge nudge), and he records the reaction of the SF professionals to the American landing on Mars. Injokes abound, most labored (a writer named Bob (wwnn) lamenting that he had to abandon his planned novel about an orphaned adopted by Martians), only one cute (and that maybe unintentional: a brand new writer named Larry bursting out "Lookatthat!"). Lots of namechecking: Jack, Arthur, Spreggie (!), Poul, Beam, Leigh, etc. I get it, I suppose -- we are being signaled that this is a novel about the sort of Mars we used to dream of in SF, but I thought it went on way too long for too little effect.

But the real novel is much better. This is an alternate history, in which for reasons that will become clear, Venus and Mars have conditions similar to many pulp era SF stories. Venus is a wet jungle planet with fairly primitive humanoid inhabitants. And Mars is a dying desert planet with very civilized humanoids with a very old, very tradition-oriented culture. The Sky People concerned the exploration of Venus. Now, In the Courts of the Crimson King deals with Mars.

The main characters are a Martian Princess, natch, and a human scientist. But that's not quite right. The Martian, Teyud za-Zhalt, is the daughter of the current very old King (or Despot) of the City That is a Mountain, the much shrunken remnants of a Kingdom that once ruled all Mars. But Teyud's mother was not of the appropriate genetics to have an official child (or something), and since Martian women can control their fertility, her decision to have a child was a capitol crime. She was horribly killed, though the King managed to spirit his daughter away, where she was raised ("socialized") in her mother's genetic caste, Thoughtful Grace -- very intelligent and powerful warriors. Because of the control over fertility, Martian females and males have essentially equal status, so Teyud in fact is a potential heir to her father's throne -- which makes her a target if found of rivals of higher social class but less direct genetic relationship to the dying older King. So for decades (Martians are very long lived) she has been acting as a mercenary for hire, guarding caravans and the like, I suppose. And now she has been hired to escort a Terran expedition to a mysterious long-abandoned city. And the archaeologist who most wants to investigate this city is Jeremy Wainman. Jeremy is well-qualified, not just because of his scientific ability, but because he is fairly well adapted to Martian conditions: he grew up in the dry New Mexican highlands, and he is very tall, at 6' 6" only half a foot or so shorter than Teyud.

So, the expedition sets off for the lost city. Jeremy and Teyud, predictably, perhaps, begin to take a liking to each other. But they are soon aware that they are being chased ... as we learn, by representatives of not only the putative "Crown Prince" who has discovered her existence, but also by representatives of conservative factions in the King's government, who are concerned over his innovations (he is working with Terrans to use nuclear power to help circulate water more efficiently, thus perhaps to some extent alleviating the long decline of Martian civilization). They each manage to save the other's life, further cementing their affections for each other. And at the lost city they make a spectacular discovery, one with implications for Teyud's fitness to rule a perhaps revived Mars.

All this is really more or less the shape of the narrative we expected. And so it continues, with lots of action, chases, a "damsel in distress" (except, as noted, it's not a damsel but a guy -- Jeremy -- part of a purposeful inversion of pulp traditions that Stirling pulls off nicely) -- all leading to a dramatic final confrontation. And it's really lots of fun. I will say that I thought the actual final conclusion a bit too much of a deus ex machina, and not quite what I had in mind. Which of course isn't necessarily an author's obligation -- he's writing his book, not mine -- but still! Anyway, for all that as I said, I liked the book, as light entertainment.

Locus, July 2002

S. M. Stirling's "Shikari in Galveston" (Worlds That Weren't) is set in an alternate world where an asteroid impact in the late 19th Century wiped out most of Europe and the United States' technological civilization: the new "British Empire" is dominated by India (and the descendants of Englishmen who fled to India under Disraeli's leadership), while the U. S. is inhabited by "tribes" of both white men and Indians, as well as debased descendants of those who turned to cannibalism in the aftermath of the asteroid impact.  I was disturbed by the way in which the cannibals were blithely portrayed as permanently subhuman, making them convenient villains, but the story, about a hunting expedition into cannibal country that runs into evidence that the cannibals are planning an organized attack on the "civilized" tribes, is brisk, exciting reading.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

S. M. Stirling, in “Ancient Ways”, tells a very entertaining story of a Cossack joining up with a Kalmyk to rescue a kidnapped princess. It’s SF because it’s set in his “Dies the Fire” future, in which electricity suddenly stopped working, and society forcibly reverts to pre-industrial ways. It’s pure unpretentious fun, and I could see a series of stories following the same set of characters.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of William Barton

This is a slightly belated birthday review, for William Barton, who turned 69 a day ago. He wrote some truly exceptional SF in the first decade of the 21st century (and some before that, to be sure), but alas, he seems to have fallen silent about 10 years ago. I particularly recommend the first story here, "The Engine of Desire", a tremendous novella.

Locus, August 2002

I have made it no secret that my favorite SF story of 2001 was Ian R. MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation", which is to some extent about the loss of the 20th Century's Sfnal dream of the future.  Now I find that one of my favorite stories so far in 2002 is also, to me at least, something of a sad farewell to the yearnings of 20th Century SF, though in the case of William Barton's "The Engine of Desire", a novella from the August Asimov's, these yearnings have to some great extent been achieved, but not in the way John Campbell showed us.

This story is set many centuries in the future of Barton's 2000 Asimov's story "Heart of Glass", and features the same narrator, an "optimod": a bio-engineered human/animal mix.  The wonders it features include AI, FTL travel, Galactic empires, colorful aliens, robots, etc. But we are shown these in the aftermath of a couple of utterly disastrous wars, in which humans were used as cannon fodder by advanced alien.  The ruins of the Galaxy are tenuously at peace, but much has been lost, by many different species swept into the war.  The narrator is now a scavenger of abandoned technology.  As the story opens he rescues an intelligent, human-designed, robot, delightfully named Mr. Pommesfrites, then makes his way to another planet, vaguely hoping to find some trace of the AI who once ran his starship.  On this planet we see more of the devastation left by the war, as well as a sardonic look at the continuing destructive habits of intelligent beings.  The narrator encounters another human-derived refugee, observes the residents of this planet at their games, and drifts on.  In a way not much happens, but the story is still strikingly effective.  It is told in voice suffused with regret, with loss, with sad remembrance.  It shows us a future stuffed with potential but devoted entirely to war and devastation, one in which humans are wholly insignificant pawns. It's an achingly moving story.

Locus, June 2003

In the context of arguments about "fun" and "adventure" in contemporary SF, William Barton's novella "The Man Who Counts" (Sci Fiction, May 28) is particularly interesting. The story is on the one hand a lush recreation of the purest of old-fashioned SFnal dreams. It's set in a future in which Mars and Venus have been lushly terraformed, and in which worlds of other stars have been colonized as well. The very title is taken from the first of Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories. The action involves the heroic escape of prisoners from a Martian penal colony, and their attempt to uncover a political scandal. But all this heroism is undercut -- the narrator is a serial rapist and killer who continues to kill innocents. The lead female character prostitutes herself repeatedly to "pay" for their escape. The future penology is grotesque -- the death penalty has been abolished, but criminals are mindwiped, and reprogrammed to be "studs" or "snatches" -- compelled to be always ready for sex. Alternately they might be castrated. I can't say I was thrilled or uplifted by this story, or exactly cheering for the heroes (though they are ultimately on the side of good), but I was kept reading, always interested, usually horrified. This is full of action, full of colorful SF ideas, but it can hardly be called fun. Much contemporary SF reflects on Golden Age SF, often rather cynically -- that may be one aspect that turns off some readers, but it's necessary for writers to stay honest.

Locus, September 2003

William Barton's last couple of stories ("The Engine of Desire" and "The Man Who Counts") have seemed to me to carry a strong subtextual element combining nostalgia for the lost dreams of old SF with a certain critique of those dreams. His new story, the long novella "Off On a Starship", from the September Asimov's, makes this explicit -- no need to go subtext-mining here! An SF-loving 16 year old stumbles into a flying saucer and finds himself whisked to Titan and then points beyond. He struggles to survive amid overtly science-fictional environments that remind him of stories by Burroughs and Niven and Norton and almost any other writer a boy in 1966 might have encountered. With the help of a friendly robot he finally makes some sense of his fate, and comes to a decision about his future -- and the Earth's. On the one hand the story sharply exposes regrets about our failure to achieve such classic SFnal dreams as journeys to Mars, but on the other hand slyly asks just how "adult", as it were, some of these dreams are.

Locus, September 2004

William Barton's "The Gods of a Lesser Creation" is another of his stories about "optimods" (genetically engineered human/animal hybrids) and androids (or gyndroids). The most fundamental issue raised, of course, is slavery. In this case the narrator is mostly dog. His job is to serve and guard his owner, Dr. Allie Battenberg. In the course of the story we see various other sorts of ownership, represented by Battenberg's using of a naïve young woman, by her pilot's use of a robot sex toy, by the exploitation of the local "Social Discards". It's a thoughtful and subtle story by a consistently underrated and challenging writer.

Locus, September 2006

Double issues of Asimov’s are usually especially strong. For one thing, they tend to feature novellas, and indeed the October/November issue has two, both good. William Barton’s “Down to the Earth Below” invokes mostly Edgar Rice Burroughs, with nods to Heinlein’s Glory Road. Alan Burke, nearly 14, and his three friends fall into an abandoned mine while playing games set in a Burroughsian world they have invented. There is no way out but through, as it were: through to a strange land where they meet a beautiful woman and fierce warriors, and undertake a quest. In a way the story is about growing up: certainly Alan is on the cusp of puberty, as represented by the woman he meets changing from the “Untouchable” to the “Beloved”. This is explicitly an adolescent fantasy, but the rather touching resolution isn’t quite as expected, and can be read in multiple ways. Barton has given us a recent set of slightly uneasy paeans to the lost worlds of SF and Fantasy: the dreams of fabulous futures and colorful realms that we mostly abandon as we age (and that even as dreams we have to some extent abandoned in recent decades: there is no possible Barsoom, nor really a Foundation).

Locus, September 2008

William Barton, with “In the Age of the Quiet Sun” (Asimov's, September), extrapolates to a future beloved of SF readers, as asteroid miners (slaves to shady corporations) stumble on a fantastic find, an alien spacecraft. I don't think it really convinces, but in a way it's not meant too – the attitude is ever knowing – this isn't where we are going, but a version of where we wanted to go.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 49: The Beasts of Kohl, by John Rackham/A Planet of Your Own, by John Brunner

Today would have been John Brunner's 85th birthday. I've previously posted quite a few reviews of Brunner's Ace Doubles, but there are more to come! Here's one I wrote back in 2004.

Ace Double Reviews, 49: The Beasts of Kohl, by John Rackham/A Planet of Your Own, by John Brunner (#G-592, 1966, $0.50)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by Jack Gaughan)
I decided after having read a couple previous John Brunner Ace Double halves that I liked his early easygoing adventure stuff, and so I bought some more Brunner Ace Doubles. This book comes not too long before Brunner published Stand on Zanzibar, his huge, ambitious, Hugo winner. A Planet of Your Own is very short, at 30,000 words. The Beasts of Kohl is about 52,000 words long.

"John Rackham", as I have mentioned before, was a pseudonym for John T. Phillifent, who also published under his own name (mostly in Analog). The Beasts of Kohl opens with a man named Rang hunting on an alien world, in the company of a bird and a large dog, with both of whom he can speak telepathically. We soon learn that Rang is a "beast" of a superintelligent sea creature named Kohl. Kohl decides, of a sudden, that Rang is too intelligent to keep as a beast -- he must take him to his home planet, on which Kohl found him as a boy, and let him decide where is his real home. Kohl also fetches another beast much like Rang (well, except for the breasts): Rana, who has been in the keeping of one of Kohl's fellow sea beings.

It will be no surprise to the reader that the home planet to which Kohl takes Rang and Rana is Earth. The kicker, though, is that due to time-dilation or other effects of Kohl's method of star travel, tens of thousands of years have passed from the time of Rang and Rana's birth to the time of their return. They are, in fact, Cro-Magnons, and they return to roughly the present day -- or a bit in the future. Either due to Cro-Magnons being naturally superior, or due to Kohl's enlightened training, Rang and Rana are much better thinkers than the run of humans, not to mention the telepathic ability. Luckily, on their return, they quickly encounter the world's leading genius, Hector Raine (I assume the similarity of names between Rang, Rana, and Raine was on purpose), as well as Hector's beautiful and also pretty bright secretary, Meryl Martin.

The remainder of the plot turns on Rang and Rana and Kohl trying to "uplift", in a sense, Hector and Meryl, mixed in with Hector's sleazy business manager trying to sell his consulting services to the Soviets. A kidnap attempt ensues, followed by some derring-do and superpowers, and of course the eventual realization by Hector and Meryl that they love each other (despite Meryl's interest in Rang and Hector's in Rana) ...

Routine stuff, a bit below the previous Rackham stories I've tried, a bit disappointing on the whole.

A Planet of Your Own opens with Kynance Foy, a beautiful and intelligent girl from Earth, finding herself stranded on the planet Nefertiti. She has learned that her looks and education mean awfully little on the aggressive colony planets, and that the zygra pelt she had hoped to acquire cheaply off-Earth is just as expensive on Nefertiti, home of the Zygra Company, as anywhere. She has no money with which to buy passage home, so she jumps at the curious offer of a job with the Zygra Company. They need a supervisor for their operations of Zygra, an uninhabitable planet where the curious plant-like zygra pelts grow. Kynance is a bit leery of the job -- nobody else seems to jump at it -- but it offers a generous salary plus a free ticket back to Earth.

She soon learns that she will need to spend a year on Zygra, completely alone. And that her boss is a slimy sexual harasser. And that the Zygra Company has rigged the contract to be full of loopholes which will allow them to void it and thus not pay her or give her the ticket home. Luckily, one of her degrees is in law ... The reader soon learns, and Kynance shortly thereafter, that there are actually inhabitants of Zygra -- some of the previous Zygra Company reps, marooned there after their contracts were voided. She realizes that she will need to fight the Company with all her legal acumen if she is to survive, let alone get her trip back to Earth. And in a rather surprising rapid finish, she and the previous survivors cook up a plan ...

I thought this rather weak for Brunner. The hand of the author is all too evident in setting up implausible legalities and loopholes for Kynance to deal with and use. I can't believe the Company could so easily get away with their evil ways, nor that, given that, that Kynance could so (relatively) easily foil their plans. And many aspects of the setup were just too convenient, such as Zygra's year being just a few days longer than Earth's, which turns out to be legally significant. It's still a fast and breezy read, and you root for Kynance, but it's really not that good. Oddly enough, it showed up on the long list of Nebula nominees for Best Novel of 1966, the second year of the Nebulas. (By current rules, it would be a novella, and not eligible for nomination as a novel.)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Birthday Review: Hazard, by Jo Beverly

Jo Beverly was born 22 September 1947, and died in 2016. In her memory then, on what would have been her 72nd birthday, here's something I wrote long ago about one of her Regency romances.

Hazard, by Jo Beverly

a review by Rich Horton

I read the occasional Regency romance, and one of the best contemporary Regency writers is Jo Beverly. (Jo has SF connections -- she was a Writers of the Future finalist back in the day, and she had a pretty decent SF romance story in the Catherine Asaro anthology Irresistible Forces in 2004.) Hazard is 2002 novel, peripherally connected to her ongoing Company of Rogues series of Regencies.

Lady Anne Peckwood is a demure daughter of a Duke. She is lame -- a twisted foot, and perhaps for that reason keeps to the background, but she is (as ever with Regency heroines) beautiful anyway. But she has been twice jilted, and begins to wonder if she will ever marry, even while she realizes she is not that upset over the jiltings -- perhaps, indeed, relieved. Her married younger sister is having her first child, and the blessed event occurs while their brother Uffham and his "secretary", a lower born man named Race de Vere, are visiting. Race shows himself very useful in the crisis when the baby comes a bit early, and Anne finds herself extremely attracted -- especially when they kiss, and when they play Hazard (a precursor to Craps) -- but of course de Vere is completely unsuitable for a Duke's daughter, despite his excellent war record.

Anne realizes her retiring habits are one reason she has not met a man she truly wishes to marry, so she vows to try one more season in London, this time taking a more dramatic role. Here long time friend St. Raven, one of the Company of Rogues, will be her escort -- but they are friends, not potential lovers. She creates a sensation, partly because of her beauty, partly because of Tris's escort, partly because of her embracing her handicap by such means as using a walking stick as a fashion statement. But the men she meets do little for her -- some are worthy but boring, some are not really worthy at all. Only her encounters with de Vere excite her -- but there is no getting over the fact that his father made his money in trade (and in a lottery!), nor indeed that for strategic reasons he may be declared a bastard before long. Eventually Anne settles on a war hero of sorts.

Well, we know where this is headed. Anne's elopement with the rackety war hero will not suit -- and somehow Race de Vere and she will overcome barriers between them. Of course none of this really convinces, but Beverly plays a bit fairer than some writers might with the situation. (De Vere, for example, does not suddenly become the Earl of Oxford and thus suitable.) There's a premarital sex scene, typical for Regencies nowadays, though not I think very believable. But readable enough. It's not great stuff -- not Heyer, even -- but it does rank above the run of contemporary Regency romances.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Andy Duncan

Last year on this date I posted a few of my reviews of Andy Duncan's stories, but for some reason I missed several stories I'd covered. And I've reviewed a couple more since then, so why not repost my reviews this year, with the extra ones added.

(There's a new one too, in the September-October Asimov's, which I cover in the upcoming October Locus: "Charlie Tells Another One", about the great early banjo player Charlie Poole. Poole is featured (briefly) in the first episode of Ken Burns' Country Music series on PBS, and it was striking to see him called out right after I'd read Andy's story!)

Anyway, Happy Birthday, Professor Duncan!

from my Year End Summary, 1999

The best new story, and perhaps the best story Weird Tales published this year, was by Andy Duncan: "From Alfano's Reliquary". This is about an early, corrupt, Pope, and his curious servant. Extremely well-written. Duncan is very very impressive.  I think this story might make my Hugo nomination ballot.

Locus, April 2007

One of the most welcome names in the table of contents of Wizards is Andy Duncan -- I haven’t seen much from him lately, and I’ve missed him. "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question" has a claim to be the best story in this book. An orphan girl raised in a museum reaches a certain age, when her master wants her to start performing in the magic show -- which means submitting to the creepy attentions of a mostly male audience. She escapes to another world, where she meets, eventually, the Devil, and where she must answer his questions.

Review of Eclipse 4 (Locus, )

Andy Duncan’s “Slow as a Bullet” is pure tall tale, about a man who foolishly bets that he can outrun a bullet, and how he manages to do it. Duncan’s voice (or that of his narrator) carries the story, which is enjoyable but (as one expects for this sort of story) really quite slight.

Locus, February 2010

Indeed The Dragon Book is enjoyable throughout -- not a story fails to please. The clear best piece is the closing story, which is also probably the least traditional "dragon" story: "The Dragaman’s Bride", by Andy Duncan. The story features Pearleen Sunday, from Duncan’s excellent earlier story "The Devil’s Ninth Question", but she is primarily there to record the relationship of an "Old Fire Dragaman" and a young woman threatened by sterilization as part of the infamous eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which focused on the poor of Appalachia. Duncan beautifully evokes the mountainous back country of his characters, and situates his "Dragaman" there with complete naturalness. The language is spot on, the story involving, the issue affecting.

Locus, March 2010

PS Publishing’s Christmas special is The Night Cache, by Andy Duncan, which is only barely fantastical, but very enjoyable, about the love affair of two young women, and how one of them drags the other into her passion for geocaching.

Locus, August 2012

Finally, I must mention Andy Duncan's new collection, The Pottawatomie Giant. It's mostly reprints, and these are, as you might expect, excellent: stories like his wonderful secret history of the Soviet space program, “The Chief Designer”; and his delightful pair of stories about Pearleen Sunday and her encounters with the devil and a dragon of sorts (“A Diorama of the Infernal Regions; or, The Devil's Ninth Question” and “The Dragaman's Bride”). There is one new story, and it's a fine one: “Close Encounters”, in which a UFO contactee, years after his fame, is lured by a reporter into joining a latter day attempt to contact the aliens – with strange, sad, results, and accompanied by moving recollections of his previous “contact” and its results.

Locus, August 2018

Analog’s latest issue features an Andy Duncan story, "New Frontiers of the Mind", that probably isn’t SF, but which is about a pretty significant figure in the history of SF and indeed of Analog: John W. Campbell, Jr. It’s well known that Campbell, while a student at Duke, participated in J. B. Rhine’s early investigations of ESP. This story imagines Campbell’s interactions with Rhine (in this case, an implausible early success), and also the marriages of both Campbell and Rhine (whose wife had a significant role in his researches). It’s a pretty affecting portrait of both couples, and of the obsessions of both men.

Locus, December 2018

And in The Book of Magic Andy Duncan offers his third Pearleen Sunday story, “The Devil’s Whatever”, in which Pearleen, a wizard based in Appalachia, is finagled into helping her friend, the Devil’s son-in-law Petey Wheatstraw, out of a fix involving places named after the Devil.

Speaking of Andy Duncan, An Agent of Utopia is a very welcome new collection from him. It includes some of his best earlier stories, and it opens with two brand new pieces, both very good. “An Agent of Utopia” is set in London in 1535, with Thomas More waiting to be executed. But he has a surprising visitor – a man from Utopia, the subject of More’s famous book. This man’s job is to free More and take him back with him – but More refuses. And the story turns to a real event – More’s eldest daughter, the celebrated writer Margaret Roper, arranged to steal his head from the spike it was displayed on. Here she turns to the man from Utopia, who for all this Utopian background, finds himself smitten and unable to refuse her.

The other new piece is “Joe Diabo’s Farewell”, told by Eddie Two Rivers DeLisle, a Mohawk working the high steel. It follows him through one day, marked by an accident in which Joe Diabo, a veteran worker and one of the few Mohawks sticking with the “old ways”, falls to his death. Eddie, given the day off, and grieving, ends up picking up some extra money acting as a “real Indian” for the premier of a new movie about Custer. And in so doing encounters a real General who was at Little Big Horn, a pretty girl who seems to like him, and a bunch of the other “real Indians”, who are every sort of ethnicity except for Native American … but who are his kin anyway. One more encounter with Joe Diabo closes the story, which is lovely, and hard to describe – carried by voice, and character, and a perhaps paradoxical groundedness, given that much of it is set 30 stories in the sky. These two stories, along with “The Devil’s Whatever”, represent very well one of Duncan’s greatest strengths: all are steeped in the voice of their characters (and tellers), yet all three (or four) voices are completely different, and completely effective.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee was born 19 September 1947, and died, only 67, in 2015. She was really a remarkable writer, I think perhaps sometimes not as well appreciated as she should have been, perhaps because she was quite prolific, perhaps because some of her most original work was in her short fiction. Here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, from my Locus column, late in her life.

Locus, April 2002

And at last to the Spring Weird Tales, which features a few nice stories. Weird Tales regular Tanith Lee contributes one in "Flicker of a Winter Star" a graceful novelette about a woman farmed out to a nursing home by her oafish son-in-law, and the strange creature that she encounters there.  Lee is always worth attention, though this is perhaps lesser Lee, and also less exotic than usual for her.  But well executed.

Locus, May 2002

DAW has issued a big anthology of fantasy stories in celebration of that imprint's 30th Anniversary, called simply enough DAW 30th Anniversary Fantasy, edited by Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert. The admirable Tanith Lee contributes "Persian Eyes"; a spooky story set in Ancient Rome, in which a mysterious Persican slave girl casts an unusual spell over the men of several unfortunate households.

Locus, November 2002

October/November is also F&SF's special double issue. Best might be Tanith Lee's novelette "In the City of Dead Night", an effective fantasy about two thieves breaking into the title city, and the terrible thing that awaits them. Nothing much new here, but Lee does effectively work changes on familiar tropes.

Locus, May 2003

Tanith Lee's "Blood Chess" (Weird Tales, Spring) is a vampire story, but quite original, about a vampire who exacts a toll from the neighboring village: one young woman every so often. The vampire's sister, not herself a vampire, tells the story of one particular victim.

Review of Fair Folk (Locus, April 2005)

This book features stories of fairies – but not, as Marvin Kaye's introduction notes, "wee, adorable elves". The fair folk here are often very fair indeed, but they are also scary, jealous of their rights, and willing to harshly use any mortal who gets on their wrong side.

Tanith Lee's opening piece, "UOUS", is a perfect illustration. Sixteen year old Lois is a lives with her stepmother and stepsisters in a decaying house on the edge of a scary wood. The others treat her as a servant, while they spend their lives in dissolution: lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Then Lois  meets a fairy: an eerily handsome man named Finn. But Finn is not willing to give her three wishes: instead he will take them. And Lois is set on a path of stealing from her fellows, leading inevitably to inviting Finn to the house, where he will take just what he wants. The story is uncompromising, and one feels uneasily that the characters perhaps deserve their odd fates, but that by implication those fates may be reserved for us.

Locus, December 2005

Lords of Swords promises traditional Heroic Fantasy and it delivers that pretty well. It’s an uneven anthology, but the best stories are solid work, particularly Tanith Lee’s lovely “The Woman in Scarlet”, about a traveling Sword’s Man, who is almost literally married to his Sword, which takes on a female persona. The Sword drives him where she wants, usually to dispense justice, but then she sends him to an unexpected place, and an unexpected man. Can a Sword be unfaithful?

Locus, January 2008

From Asimov’s for January I quite liked Tanith Lee’s “The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald”, a tensely unwinding medical mystery, in which a man comes to a domed city and visits a couple of old friends. The city is under a quarantine, we learn, for slowly emerging reasons: a virus with terribly ironic effects.

Locus, March 2008

And finally, a new anthology from Norilana Books, Lace and Blade, promises “an elegant and romantic “soft” form of sword and sorcery” – mixing wit, intrigue, passion – and of course swordplay and magic. And it delivers on all counts: the stories are wonderfully entertaining throughout, as with Tanith Lee’s “Lace-Maker, Blade-Taker, Grave-Breaker, Priest”, about two swordsmen on a ship who take violently against each other, but whose plans for a duel are upset by a shipwreck.

Locus, March 2009

Norilana Books continues its active foray into the original anthology market with the second Lace and Blade collection of – what? Costume fantasy? Fantasies of manners? At any rate, I greatly enjoyed about half the stories here … the rest were disappointing. But the book is well worth it for the high points, particularly perhaps the last two pieces. Tanith Lee’s “Comfort and Despair” is a sly portrait of an apparently mismatched marriage enlivened by certain secrets.

Locus, November 2009

In the October Fantasy Magazine Tanith Lee offers “Clockatrice”, a fine colorful entertainment in which another photographer stars – this one a freelancer who does art projects for magazines (and other things). She visits a rock star at his family’s ancient estate, hears a somewhat gothic story about a young woman turned to stone in the gardens, gets to see the statue, and the man’s bed … and ends up interested and annoyed enough, against her better judgement, to use the photographs she took to create a particular piece of art retelling the story of the cockatrice and the young woman. Which of course has consequences!

Locus, December 2009

Norilana Books has issued no fewer than six original anthologies in 2009. The latest is Sky Whales and Other Wonders, which seems aimed at presenting stories centered on really colorful central ideas. I liked “The Sky Won’t Listen”, by Tanith Lee, an SF ghost story, in which a psychic investigator of sorts is engaged to deal with a ghostly “whaling ship” on a distant planet. This planet features “sky whales”, once harvested for their luminous skin. That’s over now, but a ghost ship has been attacking some of the newer ships that try to herd the whales away from human cities. There is a human ghost on the ghost ship of course, and his motive is a bit different than expected – nice colorful work.

Review of Teeth (Locus, August 2011)

Tanith Lee’s “Why Light” is a story about a vampire girl going to meet her arranged husband. Lee suggests some different aspects of the vampire legend – limited tolerance to sunlight – and tells a conventional but enjoyable story about an unexpected romance.

Locus, September 2013

Tanith Lee's “A Little of the Night” (Clockwork Phoenix 4) is the story of an officer who kills a brutal fellow officer and must flee, finding himself in a mysterious near-abandoned castle, soon realizing that some sort of vampirism is going on, some pull on the residents' life force. This is Lee in fairly familiar form for her, at times a tad overwrought, but enjoyable.

Birthday Review: Why Do Birds, and some short fiction, by Damon Knight

Damon Knight was born 97 years ago today. He died in 2002. In this space I've previously reviewed all his Ace Double, and his excellent final novel, Humpty Dumpty. Here then is something brief I wrote about his second-to-last novel, Why Do Birds, as well as a few more short stories.

Why Do Birds, by Damon Knight

Why Do Birds is Damon Knight's second-last novel, from 1992. It is described on the cover, fairly accurately, as "A Comic Novel of the Destruction of the Human Race". (Actually, it's not clear that the Human Race is actually destroyed.) The main character is Ed Stone, who shows up in 2002 claiming to be from 1931, despite being about 30 years old. He says aliens kidnapped him and kept him on their spaceship for 70 years, and now they have released him and given him a job. He is supposed to convince everyone on Earth to voluntarily enter a huge cube, and go into suspended animation. Then the aliens will take everyone somewhere, while the Earth will be destroyed.

Naturally people think he's crazy -- indeed, he thinks he might be crazy. But he has a ring that compels anyone he shakes hands with to believe him. Before long he is meeting the President and other political leaders, and the Cube Project is well under way. He also acquires a girlfriend and a number of additional allies. But there are a few people who oppose his plans, in some cases for sinister reasons.

The narrative is deadpan, simple on the surface, often quite funny. Ed is a curious character -- not quite likeable, a bit sinister himself, but in the end someone we sort of root for. His girlfriend Linda Lavalle is rather more likeable. The story plays out over a dozen years or so, as the Cube is built, while the forces arrayed against Ed raise doubts about his story, and Linda has her own loyalties tested. The ending is pretty much as we are compelled to expect, and mostly satisfying. That said, I couldn't love the book -- parts of it made me impatient, and I must confess I am not sure what Knight was really up to. Certainly the aliens and their plans are never explained. There are hints that the world of the book is not quite our world (besides the obvious differences between the 2002 Knight imagined as of 1992 and the real 2002). There are strange occurrences that might imply something really odd is going on, but I never figured out just what. But Knight is never less than interesting, and while it don't think truly understood this book, it lives in my memory -- it is a very original work.

Galaxy, June 1951

Damon Knight is one of those SF writers who I've always thought was best at the novella length (loosely defined). (Those his late novels are pretty good.) Stories like "The Earth Quarter", "Rule Golden", "Double Meaning", "Four in One", "Natural State", "Dio", and "Mary", all long novelettes or novellas, really stand out in his oeuvre. That said, Knight also wrote a passel of equally brilliant short stories: "The Country of the Kind", "Masks", "I See You", and "Fortyday" are four that come immediately to mind, from four different decades. Perhaps then it is fairer to say that Knight was a great writer of short fiction, though I'd say he didn't come into his own as a novelist until late in his career. (On balance, despite Knight's lasting fame in the field, I think he was underrated as a writer of fiction, perhaps because of the prominence of his contributions as editor, critic, and founder of SFWA.)

Anyway in this issue I was a bit surprised to find a longish novelette I didn't recognize in "Don't Live in the Past". Bernard Vargas is a functionary in the far future who is forced to travel back in the past after the "pipelines" in his world have malfunctioned, sending a bunch of dangerous stuff (mostly food) to the past. Vargas ends up in the very period in which the Sacred Ancestor who founded their society lived. He ends up imprisoned, and escapes with some revolutionaries. It seems that "Blodgett", the Sacred Ancestor, is a thug. But how can that be? The future is a utopia? Knight's story, of course, suggests in part that perhaps that future is not such a utopia after all. But also ... well, there's a twist to the story, a fairly guessable one. It's an OK story, but it's easy to see why this isn't one of Knight's best remembered pieces.

Space Science Fiction, March 1953

"The Worshippers" is rather less serious. A prissy philosophy professor and author finds himself quite by accident alone on an alien spaceship, which he flies by sheer luck to an unknown planet, where he ends up stranded among the natives (different aliens than the makers of the spaceship). He is surprised and pleased to find that they immediately worship him as a god, this despite the fact they seem fairly sophisticated and advanced. The man proceeds to remake the aliens in his idea of humanity as quickly as possible -- eliminating their immoral habits and introducing them to the idea of weapons, etc. Things are going quite swimmingly until yet another group of aliens shows up ... It's fairly minor work for Damon Knight, getting off a number of somewhat obvious satirical jokes, pretty silly stuff in many ways. Not without value but not terribly important in the Knight oeuvre.

Galaxy, January 1954

The lead novella is "Natural State", by Damon Knight, at about 25,000 words a true novella. (And Galaxy was, I believe, the only magazine at the time to use the term novella.) "Natural State" was later expanded into the Ace Double Masters of Evolution (1959). The expansion is fairly slight, to about 30,000 words. Here's my Ace Double review:

The future world is divided into city dwellers and "muckfeet". The city dwellers rely on high technology. They are conditioned to fear and feel sick at the thought of country life, and of muckfeet food and hygiene. They have previously fought wars, which both sides claim to have won: but as there are only 22 remaining cities in the whole world, and the muckfeet control the rest of the area, and have a much higher population, the real winners seem obvious.

As the book opens, the Mayor of New York has a desperate idea. He assigns a leading actor, Alvah Gustad, to fly out to the muckfeet and offer to trade with them: the high tech city products in exchange for much needed metals -- and also in the hopes of converting the muckfeet to city ways. Alvah somewhat reluctantly and fearfully makes his way to the country. At first he is confronted with suspicion and threats, or is just ignored. But finally he is given a chance to sell his wares at a fair somewhere in the Midwest. Much to his surprise, nobody is remotely interested in his products -- and worse, after he gets into a scuffle, he finds that the muckfeet have managed to completely disable his energy sources. He is stranded.

A pretty young woman named B. J. and a wise mentor type named Doc Bither take Alvah under their arms, and over some weeks they manage to overcome his conditioning against muckfeet food and smells. We get a look at the muckfeet way of life, which is based on using spectacular products of genetic engineering in place of machines. For example, for airplanes they use "rocs" -- huge flying lizards. Plants are used to extract metals from the ground. Other animals are used as truck or as message devices or as "libraries". Alvah is still reluctant to become a muckfoot, though -- he is still loyal to New York. But he is also in love with B. J. And when the cities launch an attack on the muckfeet, Alvah realizes that many things he has long believed are false. The novel is resolved in a predictable confrontation between Alvah's new friends and his old city.

This is a decent piece of work, enjoyable enough, but lesser work than Knight's best. I would rank it third of his three Ace Doubles (not counting the story collection). Some of the plot contrivances just don't convince -- such as Alvah and the very first muckfoot girl he meets falling in love. And Knight's case for the "natural state" versus "technology" is grossly loaded -- the cities' high tech is burdened by having to comply with the laws of physics, basically, which don't really seem to affect the muckfeet genetic creations. Or put another way -- Knight imagines a utopian perfection of genetic engineering, with limited costs; but the opposing high technology is auctorially declared to be inferior -- but not proven so.

(I also looked at the differences between the original novella and the expanded Ace Double. They consist of a brief passage, about a page, in the middle of the book which explains some of the genetic engineering; and a long additional sequence right at the end, extending the final conflict and giving Alvah a chance to be an action hero of sorts. On the whole, the additions are padding, though I think the explanatory passage fits fine.)

Amazing, July 1960

And, finally, Damon Knight’s “Time Enough” (incorrectly given as “Enough Time” in the TOC) is a pretty good story of a man reenacting a moment of humiliation during his boyhood, hoping to overcome, in reenactment, the fear that had paralyzed him (and, he thinks, ruined his life) back then. But, of course, he cannot escape his nature. Solid work, if to my mind not in the first rank of his stories.

F&SF, October-November 2002 (Locus, November 2002)

October/November is also F&SF's special double issue. ... There is a story from the late, great, Damon Knight: "Watching Matthew", a very well-done novelette about four episodes in the life of a man, ranging from age 10 through old age, seen from the POV of his dead twin. A nice story, but it didn't knock me out.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Wil McCarthy

Locus, December 2002

In the December Analog Wil McCarthy offers a long novelette, a sequel to his novel The Collapsium, and apparently the opening section to his next novel, The Wellstone. "Garbage Day" tells of the exploits of a group of unruly teens, including the Crown Prince of the Queendom of Sol, when they escape their minders. What do bored young people do in a world of immortals? Especially if they have access to the power of programmable matter? It's decent work, but it reads more like a novel's opening section than a fully resolved story.

The DAW mass market anthologies are a mixed lot – some are quite awful, and some are quite good. Once Upon a Galaxy, edited by Wil McCarthy with anthology veterans John Helfers and Martin H. Greenberg, is one of the better ones. ... McCarthy's own "He Died that Day, in Thirty Years", is a clever and sardonic extrapolation of the unexpected effects of a slightly malfunctioning memory tailoring drug. Most of the rest of the book is decent entertainment as well.

Locus, June 2005

This is shaping up to be a banner year for Analog. The June issue is very strong, led by its two longest stories. Wil McCarthy's "The Policeman's Daughter" is set in his "Queendom of Sol" future. So far he has published three novels set in this milieu, but "The Policeman's Daughter" is the first shorter work I've seen. (Though excerpts from the first two novels were published as independent stories.) The key technologies of this universe are programmable matter and the "fax". This latter technology is at the center of this story. Copies of people can be made, and stored, and combined. This means practical "immorbidity" – if you die, you can reinstantiate a recent copy, and fix problems caused by aging and disease. You can also merge the memories of separate copies. In this story, a lawyer takes a case from an old friend. The friend claims that someone is trying to murder him: himself – or, that is, a younger instance of himself. Things get much more complicated when the lawyer is forced to create his own younger version to defend the friend's younger self. The story turns on questions of identity and independence, and the rights of different instances of the same person to maintain a separate existence. It's not so much a murder (or attempted murder) mystery as an examination of these questions – made more acute when a woman with whom the lawyer had had a love affair is introduced.

Locus, March 2006

Three short stories in the March-April Asimov's are very effectively weird. Wil McCarthy’s “Heisenberg Elementary” is a delightful brief romp about a classroom repeatedly disrupted by time-travelers apparently trying to fix the future by altering some child’s outlook.

Locus, April 2006

The April issue of Analog is highly characteristic of the magazine, and also quite good. The lead story is intriguing and original – alas, I don’t think it worked, though in this case I have to admit the fault may lie with me. I didn’t get it! I’m writing of Wil McCarthy’s “Boundary Conditions”, in with a trendy American Pope visits a strange orbital weather station, where “Saints” try to forecast – and perhaps forestall – quantum decoherence “storms” that result in excessive free will. The story addresses fascinating issues, including free will and whether or not there is a God, and does so from an unusual angle, but as I implied either it doesn’t quite work – or I didn’t read it right.

Locus, February 2007

Baen’s Universe opens 2007 with another steady issue – but nothing here is really outstanding. Still, I quite enjoyed Wil McCarthy’s “Marklord Pete”, in which a young Intellectual Property attorney and his lovely paralegal fight a trademark infringement battle in a future dominated by IP laws gone wild.

Locus, April 2008

Transhuman is a set of stories about, roughly, the Singularity, usually represented these days, it seems, as VR-mediated life. As a set these are thoughtful and interesting work. I liked Wil McCarthy’s “Soul Printer”, a rather cynical story about a rich college student who finds a way to create art tailored to a particular person by tweaking pictures according to their brain’s response – and of course the art they “choose” shows a good deal about their inner selves.

Locus, February 2016

Analog's year-opening double issue features a novella from Wil McCarthy, from whom we haven't seen nearly enough lately. “Wyatt Earp 2.0” is set in his Queendom of Sol future, in which one of the most critical features is “fax” technology that can restore people to life (and improve their health!) after any sort of accident. In this case a version of Wyatt Earp has been reconstituted on Mars, and given the job of bringing order to a mining town. Much is made of Earp's 19th Century notions of how to keep rough men under control, and much too of Earp 2.0's identity crisis. It's nice work, not great, in some ways reading perhaps as more of a scene-setting piece for additional stories than as an independent work.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Birthday review: Stories of Howard Waldrop

As with many of these writers, my reviews only cover late work -- I'm not discussing some of Howard Waldrop's spectacular stories from the '80s and '90s. But, be that as it may -- Howard turns 73 today, and here's a look at the stories I've reviewed over my time at Locus, not to mention on early piece for Shayol.

Review of Shayol #7

Waldrop's story, "What Makes Hieronymus Run?", is a weird one -- quel surprise, eh? It's about a couple time traveling to 16th Century Holland. But instead of tulip growers and the Duke of Alba, they find themselves in scenes from paintings, eventually including, of course, a painting by Bosch. Pretty good stuff, not quite Waldrop at his best, though. (It didn't really advance enough beyond simply presenting the neat idea.)

Locus, November 2003

In Sci Fiction for October I also enjoyed Howard Waldrop's "D=RxT", though it doesn't seem to be SF: a loving and honest story about boys (and a girl) in the 50s racing pedal cars, and a challenge from "Rocket Boy".

Locus, October 2004

Sci Fiction in September offers a short story by Howard Waldrop, "The Wolf-man of Alcatraz", which, in a characteristically Waldropian way, takes a goofy idea and makes it seem natural: what if the "Birdman of Alcatraz" was a "Wolf-man" – a werewolf. His evocation of the prisoner's life, buttressed with details like his obsession with the moon, is very nicely done, though almost too straightforward.

Locus, December 2005

In Sci Fiction in November there is a pretty good Howard Waldrop story, “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)”, about an unknown (to us) Marx Brother, Manny Marks, the death of vaudeville, and, particularly, a mysterious vaudeville act and their quest.

Locus, January 2006

Finally, in the December Sci Fiction, Howard Waldrop offers one of his best recent stories, “The King of Where-I-Go”. Waldrop’s recent territory has been the American 20th Century, ever viewed from just slightly skewed viewpoints: obscure alternate histories, or in this case a very personal bit of time travel. The story concerns a Texas boy and his younger sister. They spend summers with relatives in Alabama, while their parents, in the end unsuccessfully, try to work out marital problems. Then the sister gets polio, surviving because of her Aunt’s experience. She is slightly handicapped, and perhaps changed in another way, as she ends up participating in the Duke University psychic experiments. The story has a definite SFnal twist, but at its heart it is a pitch perfect portrayal of a mid-20th century childhood in the American South.

Review of Fast Ships and Black Sails (Locus, December 2008)

In “Avast, Abaft”, Howard Waldrop mashes up H. M. S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance to delightful effect.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

The best of the other entries comes from Howard Waldrop. “Ninieslando” is set during World War I. A British soldier is injured in No Man’s Land, between the lines, and wakes up in a mysterious place, full of Esperanto speakers. (Fortuitously, he had been an Esperanto enthusiast prior to the war.) The story turns on the Esperantist dream of human unity arising from a common language – and turns again, quite bitterly, on the constant ability of humans to find differences for no particular reason. (It’s critical, I suppose, for such a story to be set in the relatively senseless “Great War” rather than in the Second World War.) The story is only marginally fantastical – it’s more a sort of Secret History, but the conception of the existence and location of the Esperantist refuge is pure Waldropian loopiness of the sort that makes it clearly unfair to call it loopy – rather, it’s inspired.

Locus, January 2014

In Old Mars my favorite comes from Howard Waldrop. “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls (A Recreation of Oud’s Journey by Slimshang from Tharsis to Solis Lacus, by George Weeton, Fourth Mars Settlement Wave, 1981)” is, as the title tells us, told at multiple levels – it's a later edition of the account of an early Martian settler reenacting an old Martian's journey as his journal described it … clever, moving, believable, and mysterious.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Steve Rasnic Tem

I first encountered Steve Rasnic Tem in the little-remembered anthology Other Worlds 1 -- a fantasy offshoot of Roy Torgeson's original anthology series Chrysalis. (Chrysalis and Other Worlds never received the notice that anthologies like the Universe and New Dimensions books did, but they were a worthwhile and different set of books, featuring a noticeably different set of regular writers.) Over the years he (and also his late wife, Melanie Tem) slowly developed for me a reputation as  reliably intriguing and original short story writers. Steve Rasnic Tem has published several novels (a couple in collaboration with Melanie), but he still seems primary a short fiction writer, and a very good one. Today is his birthday, and in his honor here's a look stories of his I've reviewed for Locus. (Two of them, "Invisible" and "A Letter From the Emperor" were reprinted in my Best of the Year books, and I recommend them very highly, especially "A Letter From the Emperor", an exceptional story that I think deserved a lot more notice than it got.)

Locus, April 2005

I found Steve Rasnic Tem's "Invisible" (Sci Fiction) quite painful (in a good way): the story of a couple who seem to be growing literally invisible as they become socially invisible. This is, evidently, that sort of fantasy that uses its fantastic element as straightforward metaphor for a "mundane" central theme -- and it does so very well, as we see the viewpoint character's co-workers snubbing him, his daughter failing to call, and his wife's evanescing.

Locus, December 2008

At Asimov’s for December, Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem offer “In Concert”, a moving story of an aging woman who has, all her life, telepathically sensed the thoughts of others – sometimes those close to her, sometimes people across the world. Now she lives alone, close to death, and she begins to sense the thoughts of an astronaut lost in space. She also learns something about her possibly suicidal great-grandson, and in the end, much is lost – in the natural way of things – but hope remains.

Locus, October 2009

Black Static’s version of “horror” probably fits my taste as well as any horror magazine. At the August/September issue I enjoyed Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Charles”, a deadpan tale of a mother telling her long dead son that it’s really not right for dead people to marry – the story is at first funny, but it closes on an effectively sad note.

Locus, January 2010

“A Letter from the Emperor”, by Steve Rasnic Tem, is the outstanding piece from the January Asimov’s. Jacob is a messenger for a Galactic Empire. His partner has just committed suicide as they come to an isolated planet, long out of contact with what seems an only tenuously in control Emperor. His guilt over his failure to understand his late partner combines with his concern for the aging governor of this planet, who is desperate for approval from his Emperor … and what results is a letter that perhaps says more about we readers and our nostalgia for things like Galactic Empires and noble adventures than anything else.

Locus, January 2011

Then Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Visitors” (Asimov's, January) tells of a future punishment, as an old couple are shown visiting their son, who is confined rather horribly in a sort of suspended animation. It seems a way of avoiding the death penalty without really avoiding it, and the implications are quite disturbing.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies for October 14 had some strong work, including a neat, funny, original wizard’s apprentice type story from Steve Rasnic Tem, “Dying on the Elephant Road”, about a lovelorn young man who gets himself killed trying to protect the woman he loves (who doesn’t know him), only to be restored (sort of) by a wizard;

Friday, September 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Olympiad, by Tom Holt

Last year on Tom Holt's birthday I posted a selection of my reviews of K. J. Parker's short fiction. So this year surely it makes sense to post a review of a Tom Holt book! This is one of several blackly comic historical novels he wrote, one of which, The Walled Orchard (originally published in two volumes as Goat Song/The Walled Orchard) is in my opinion one of the best historical novels of the past few decades. (I posted my review of that diptych here.) Alsd, Olympiad isn't as good as that, but it's enjoyable enough, and it's the only other Holt novel on which I had a review ready to post.

Olympiad, by Tom Holt

a review by Rich Horton

Tom Holt wrote an historical novel in two volumes called The Walled Orchard (separately Goat Song and The Walled Orchard), set in Greece at the time of Aristophanes. It is one of my favorite historical novels ever -- a deeply bitter story about the folly of war and the folly of men, very blackly funny, very moving. It stands out among his amusing but rather slight humourous fantasies like a redwood among daisies. He has written two more historical novels set in Greece: a loose sequel to The Walled Orchard called Alexander at the World's End, and a story about the origins of the Olympic Games, Olympiad, published in 2000. Both are broadly similar in tone to The Walled Orchard -- perhaps a touch lighter -- but while they are decent work they are no patch on it.

Olympiad is framed as a story told by two aging brothers in about 750 BC concerning the time more than a quarter century earlier that they got themselves stuck traveling around the Pelopennese recruiting athletes for what would become the Olympics. They are telling the story to a bored Phoenician trader who in his turn is trying to convince the Greeks of the value of this newfangled thing the Phoenicians have invented, where you make scratches on pieces of clay or something to help you remember things. Much of the thematic burden, then, is Holt's contention that we are witnessing the invention of history.

The main story involves the two brothers, along with their sister and a couple more people, being sent on a mission to find a bunch of athletes to meet at Olympus for an unheard of concept: Funeral Games without a Funeral. The idea is to arrange for their King's worthless son to look good doing something, because he's apparently pretty bad at everything else, but OK at some athletic events. Unfortunately, another faction wishes to obstruct them, and goes around badmouthing them at the various cities they visit, sometimes in quite evil fashion.

They eventually run into a wanderer who claims to be the unfairly deposed prince of an island city. And to their horror their sister falls for him, which makes it tricky when he turns out to be a jerk. Plus they don't believe his story. And some of the cities they visit are gone, and some aren't interested, and so on ... pretty much its a story of (fairly amusing) abject failure. Which is to say it's very cynical. One of my problems with it was that there are no admirable characters. I know that's a lame complaint, but it really is hard to warm to a book where no one at all is really likable.

Holt's skill is clear, and he gets off plenty of very funny lines and sets up plenty of (often painfully) funny situations, but I thought it only a fitfully enjoyable book. It's odd -- much of it is funny, much of it is penetratingly observed and sensible, the characters are believably portrayed (and seem consistently not people of our time) - it's really quite well done. It just didn't fully work for me.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 56: Meeting at Infinity, by John Brunner/Beyond the Silver Sky, by Kenneth Bulmer

I just figured it was time to post another of my old Ace Double reviews, this time one by a couple of very prolific Ace Double writers. This is a pretty short review compared to my usual.

Ace Double Reviews, 56: Meeting at Infinity, by John Brunner/Beyond the Silver Sky, by Kenneth Bulmer (#D-507, 1961, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Emswhiller and John Schoenherr
(in a very Richard Powers-esque mode))
Meeting at Infinity is about 48,000 words long. This Ace publication seems to be its first -- I can find no evidence of earlier serial publication, nor of expansion from a shorter work. It's an odd work for Brunner, to my mind -- it strikes me as almost consciously a pastiche or imitation of someone like Charles Harness (or perhaps A. E. Van Vogt).

I admit I was surprised not to find a serial version, because the book shares with some serials a three part structure, in which the central "paradigm", as it were, changes each part. The novel opens with a policeman chasing a man he believes to be a murderer. The "murderer", Luis Nevada, desperately confronts a prominent man, Ahmed Lyken, with the phrase "Remember Akkilmar", and Lyken rescues him. Lyken, as it happens, has just learned that he is about to lose his franchise for a "Tacket world".

So what's going on? It turns out that the "Tacket Worlds" are alternate Earths. Franchise owners have monopoly control of trade with a given alternate world. This is economically vital for Earth, but dangerous, because in the past a plague came across from a Tacket World. Franchise owners have complete control of their worlds, even to the point of being allowed to shelter murderers. But why is Lyken so interested in "Akkilmar"?

The plot becomes recomplicated. A young street kid, working for a gangster boss, tries to sell his valuable information about Nevada and Lyken's confrontation to his boss, who asks him to find out more. But Lyken is planning to retreat to his Tacket World and fight. And what of Luis Nevada's horribly burned ex-wife and her desire for revenge? And the primitive but mentally powerful people of Akkilmar? And who is the hero of this book anyway?

As I said, Brunner keeps upping the ante, changing our expectations. It's kind of fun, though not terribly convincing at any step. Middle-range early Brunner, on the whole.

Beyond the Silver Sky first appeared, under the same title, in Science Fantasy, #43 (October 1960). The book version may be slightly expanded -- it's about 30,000 words long. I haven't seen the magazine version -- it apparently occupies about 60 pages, which would probably be about 27,000 words (but I may be off in that count).

It is set in a far future undersea society. The human residents of the society are somewhat adapted to undersea life -- they have gills, for example -- but they rigorously cull further mutations, such as webfooted children. They are hard-pressed by mysterious foes called the Zammu. They are also facing the dropping of the sea level -- or as they call it, the lowering of the "Silver Sky".

Keston Ochiltree is a young man with scientific training, but a volunteer in the military. He is recruited by his former professor for a mission to investigate what lies "beyond the silver sky". The novel simply tells of his expedition -- along with two professors, another young man, and two young women who are there only to provide not very convincing love interests for the young men. The expedition itself is also not very interesting, as no reader will be in the slightest surprised by the discoveries. (Gasp! Humans once lived out of the sea! Amazing!) The novel also ends quite abruptly, with no very satisfying resolution to the potentially interesting questions raised ("What are the Zammu?" "What will humans do in response to the lowered sea level" etc.) I wonder if Bulmer wrote either predecessors or successors to this story.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Pat Cadigan

Yesterday was Pat Cadigan's birthday. She has been a really impressive SF writer for a long time. And we shouldn't forget that early in her career she edited one of the great semi-professional magazines ever. In her honor, then, here's a selection of my Locus reviews of her short fiction, but beginning with a look at an issue of her lovely magazine Shayol (complete with one of her stories.)

Review of Shayol #2, February 1978

(Cover by Robert Haas)
I thought I had better cover a 70s issue of Shayol, if my goal was to cover 70s magazines. This issue is the second. To my taste it isn't quite as nice looking as #7, but still a very professionally produced product, as well done as any SF magazine ever.

The cover is by Robert Haas, called "Beauty", from a series of illustrations of "Beauty and the Beast". There is an interior black and white section with a few more of Haas's "Beauty and the Beast" illos. There is one more special art feature, called "Shayol", by Vikki Marshall -- four full-page drawings based on Cordwainer Smith stories. It wasn't much to my taste. Another illustration-oriented feature is an interview -- a long one -- with Tim Kirk. Interior illustrations for the stories are by Haas, Marshall, Jan Schwab, Clyde Caldwell, and Debora Whitehouse, with George Barr contributing a nice picture of Kirk. And the inside front cover features a Steve Fastner/Randall Larson picture. And there is a full page Kirk cartoon.

Other features include Harlan Ellison's famous open letter to attendees of Iguanacon, the World SF Convention in Arizona for which he was GOH. As a protest against Arizona's failure to ratify the ERA, he was refusing to spend any money in the state, while still honoring his commitment to the Convention. Steve Utley has a poem, "Rex and Regina", about Tyrannosaurs. Phillip Bolick's brief essay "Thick Thews and Busty Babes" (illustrated by Howard Chaykin) criticizes the narrowness of focus and lack of humor in Robert E. Howard and imitators. Book Reviews, by Marty Ketchum, are of The Futurians, The Shining, and Rime Isle. The editorial has one section by Arnie Fenner, much of it given to a rant about the poor printing quality of the first issues, and one section by Pat Cadigan, about Brooke Shields (then 12) and child porn. And there is a Contributors section with brief profiles and a few photos.

The fiction includes three short stories. Harlan Ellison's "Opium" (1400 words) is about a plain woman committing suicide, rescued by the Seven Dwarves who convince her to live in the "real world", i.e. a wet dream. Minor stuff. Terry Matz's "Sport" (5000 words) is not bad. Aliens have taken over Earth and bred humans for their ideas of beauty (i.e. grotesqueness) and lack of intelligence. One alien has bred one mutant for intelligence -- this "sport" tells the story, which concerns a captured wild human who his owner wants to breed to him. (This seems to have been Matz's only publication.) Tom Reamy had just died, and there is an obituary accompanying his story, "Waiting for Billy Star" (2400 words). Reamy lived in Kansas City (I had always thought him a Texan, and he was a native of Texas), and was apparently very close to Cadigan and Fenner (Shayol was based in KC). This story is a sad piece about a woman in love with a no-account rodeo cowboy who dumps her. She waits for him forlornly at a truck stop, then she hears that he has died ... Neat little story.

William Wallace's "The Mare" is a shortish novelette, at about 7700 words. It's horror, and quite well executed but not my sort of thing. The inevitableness of horror I find tiresome -- you know from the start exactly how it will work out. This story is about a young man, living with a woman on his family's haunted farm in East Texas. He remembers his grandfather's horrible death, and he has dreams, and ... well, you know where it's going. And as I said, it's well enough done -- professionally written and all, but what's the POINT? (This is one of only 2 stories Wallace seems to have published, not counting four collaborations with Joseph Pumilia as "M. M. Moamrath".)

Finally, Cadigan contributes a novella, "Death From Exposure" (20,000 words). Nice to see a story so long in a semipro magazine. Though I must say, the story probably should have been cut about in half. It's about two women cops, who are mostly assigned to trivial things like arresting flashers. (SF reading protocols messed me up here -- for a while I thought "flashers" might be referring to some futuristic crime, but no, the story is apparently contemporary in setting, and the "flashers" are just dirty old men in raincoats.) Then a woman is turned to stone. They investigate, at first refusing to believe it's anything but a prank. At long last they are convinced something real is going on, after some more "statues" turn up. And the whole thing is related to flashers. The point of the thing is to reveal the characters of the two partners, and the final revelation is believable and pretty affecting, but the story takes too long getting there. Still, decent work. The story does not seem to have been reprinted, unless fairly recently.

Locus, September 2005

Sci Fiction for August features Pat Cadigan's "Is There Life After Rehab?" -- a pure delight. The opening line is a killer, the real meaning taking some time to come clear. I think the story is best appreciated cold so I'll say nothing in particular – it is indeed about rehab, and about the lure of addiction – a special sort of addiction in this case. I really liked it.

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

Pat Cadigan’s “Jimmy” is a moving story of a girl growing up in the ‘60s, and her friend Jimmy, who is passed around from worthless relative to worthless relative – finally escaping, perhaps, after revealing to her his distressing secret.

Locus, April 2009

Ellen Datlow’s new anthology, Poe, includes stories “inspired” by Edgar Allan Poe … sometimes riffing on stories or poems, other times simply borrowing Poe’s atmospheres and themes, once or twice even featuring Poe as a character. It’s a strong book throughout. I particularly liked Pat Cadigan’s “Truth and Bone”, about an extended family of people with unusual “knowledge”. A different sort of knowledge. Hannah’s mother, for example, knows how to fix things. And her aunt knows when you’re lying. But Hannah realizes early that her talent, her knowledge, will be something a lot scarier and a lot less useful. And the story shows why in believable and wrenching terms.

Review of Is Anybody Out There? (Locus, June 2010)

Pat Cadigan, in “The Taste of Night”, tells of a woman who has become a street person in part because she is convinced that aliens are on the way, and are communicating with her through an extra sense she is developing. It is heartbreaking in its portrayal of her decline, and her husband’s despair – but it might just be hopeful, if we can believe her obsession is real.

Review of Urban Fantasy (Locus, August 2011)

Foreign cities get a look in too -- Pat Cadigan’s “Picking Up the Pieces” is told by one of five sisters, about the youngest (by a wide margin), named Quinn. Quinn falls in love with a German man, but has her heart broken when he leaves her as the Wall is about to come down, in late 1989. Quinn follows him, and her sister follows her, and they learn something striking about her erstwhile boyfriend’s family.

Locus, December 2012

Strahan also gives us a new anthology of stories set in the relatively near future Solar System, Edge of Infinity, which has a plethora of neat pieces. I had two favorites. “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, by Pat Cadigan, is set in Jupiter's orbit among the various workers, most of whom have had themselves altered to forms more useful in space. It concerns the legal travails of an unaltered woman who wants to alter herself after an injury – which of course reflects also the legal and political situation of everyone out there.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Tony Pi

Today is the birthday of Canadian writer Tony Pi, whose work I have enjoyed for the past decade or more. Here's a set of my reviews of his short fiction for Locus:

Review of Writers of the Future XXIII (Locus, November 2007)

Tony Pi’s “The Stone Cipher” has one of the wildest ideas: statues around the world begin to move, apparently in unison, but very slowly. The story is in the end an ecological message – but a bit too long and with not quite plausible leads.

Locus, January 2008

At the fourth quarter issue of Abyss and Apex I quite enjoyed a long novelette from Tony Pi, “Metamorphoses in Amber”. It’s about a group of immortals who can use amber to facilitate such things as healing and shape-changing (within limits). The narrator, Flea is trying to steal a Faberge egg from the Mantis, another immortal. Flea and Mantis have long been rivals – for example, they were once Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, respectively. He steals the egg, but something goes wrong in his escape, and he finds himself becoming female – an irreversible metamorphosis that happens to the immortals for reasons they don’t understand. His search for a cure leads him to the Amber Room, and a very special piece of amber. Colorful and different adventure.

Locus, April 2009

In Ages of Wonder Tony Pi’s “Sphinx!” is a delight, set in a quite alternate history, in which the land of Ys is threatened by a sphinx that a film maker has apparently revived for a new movie. But other things are going on – most notably, perhaps, the jealousy of the movie’s director about his young wife, the movie’s star.

Locus, May 2009

Tony Pi’s “Silk and Shadows” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2/26) is a fine romantic fantasy, about Dominin, who has at last prevailed in battle against the Stormlord who killed his father. But the victory came at a price: a deal with the notoriously treacherous witch Anansya. Dominin has also fallen in love with Anansya’s apprentice Selenja, and that may make the eventual price even higher. All is resolved imaginatively in a well-enacted magical puppet show.

Locus, July 2009

The Spring On Spec has finally arrived, with nice pieces from Jack Skillingstead and Tony Pi. ... Pi’s “Come-From-Aways” is about a linguistics professor in Newfoundland who risks her career – and eventually much more – when she decides that a strange shipwrecked man is really the 11th Century Welsh Prince Madoc.

Locus, May 2010

Alembical 2 is the second in a series of anthologies of novellas... Best is probably “The Paragon Lure”, by Tony Pi, one of several stories he’s written about a group of shapechanging immortals – here the story revolves around a mysterious pearl, and Elizabeth I – and while at times its just a bit too preposterous it moves nicely and is quite a lot of fun.

Locus, May 2014

I haven't mentioned the venerable Canadian magazine On Spec in a while. It continues to produce enjoyable issues. In Winter 2013/2104 I particularly liked Tony Pi's “The Marotte”, a Russian-flavored fantasy about a sorcerer who is judicially murdered by the Patriarch, but who survives in the jester's “marotte” (a stick-puppet), and is able to work with the jester to try to save his beloved Tsarina from the Patriarch's plots;

Locus, November 2014

The September 4 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies features two fine entertainments. “No Sweeter Art”, by Tony Pi, is another story of Ao, the candy magician. Ao is engaged by the local magistrate to protect him against a suspected assassination attempt at a Riddle duel. The magistrate is an expert riddle maker. Pi nicely intertwines Ao's ability – to make candy creatures and inhabit them remotely – with a good look at the riddle contest,  with dangerous encounters with the gods of the Chinese Zodiac, and with serious concerns about the morality of killing even bad people.

Locus, June 2016

In Beneath Ceaseless Skies I found ... “The Sweetest Skill”, by Tony Pi, his latest story of Ao, whose magic is entwined with “the sweetest skill”: candymaking. In this entry he is charged by Tiger to save the Pale Tigress, guardian of Chengdu, who has been attacked by the Ten Crows gang. Straightforward enough, if hardly easy – but then Dog and Pig get involved, with ramifications, no doubt, for future stories in what’s become a quite enjoyable series.

Locus, June 2017

I quite enjoyed stories in the two April issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In April 27 we get the latest of Tony Pi’s ongoing and very entertaining series about Tangren Ao, a sugar shaper who uses the magic in his candy animals to help people, often at the behest of the animal spirits of the zodiac. In “That Lingering Sweetness” he encounters a pair of curses in a stolen box of tea intended for the Emperor that has somehow fetched up at a local teashop. He must negotiate with Monkey and Goat, who have set the conflicting curses, and at the same time try to find a way to clean up some of the messes resulting from his earlier adventure. Fun stuff.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Birthday Review: The Scar, by China Mieville

Birthday Review: The Scar, by China Mieville

Today is China Mieville's 47th birthday. In his honor, then, here's what I wrote way back when about his third novel, The Scar. I should add, perhaps, that two of his later novels are better still: Embassytown and The City and the City are brilliant -- truly two of the best works of fantastika of the 21st century.

The Scar is China Mieville's third novel. His second, Perdido Street Station, was a major success, garnering him a Hugo nomination as well as plenty of critical acclaim and, unless I miss by guess, healthy sales. This new novel is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, Bas Lag, and as such fits loosely into that vague subgenre sometimes called "Science Fantasy". That novel was set in the huge, corrupt, city of New Crobuzon. This novel opens with mysterious doings in the ocean, and then we meet the noted linguist Bellis Coldwine, who is fleeing New Crobuzon to the colony city of Nova Esperancia. A tenuous linkage to the events of Perdido Street Station is provided by Bellis's reasons for leaving: she was a former lover of the hero of Perdido Street Station, and she fears being rounded up as a potential witness after the rather catastrophic happenings in that book.

The ship carrying Bellis Coldwine (as well as ocean biologist Johannes Tearfly and a group of Remade prisoners including a man named Tanner Sack) does not get very far, though, before it is overtaken by pirates from the mysterious floating city Armada. Bellis, Johannes, and the other passengers and prisoners are taken to Armada, where they are informed they will live the rest of their lives. They cannot leave the floating city, but they will otherwise be allowed full citizenship. Tanner Sack and Johannes accept fairly eagerly, but Bellis is desperate to have a chance to return to her beloved home city. Soon she falls into league with the mysterious Silas Fennec, a spy from New Crobuzon who is as desperate as she to return home, in his case because he has information of a coming attack on their city. It becomes clear that the leaders of Armada are engaged in a mysterious project, and Bellis becomes a key figure when she finds a crucial book in a language that she is a leading expert in. She learns that Armada is planning to harness a huge sea creature called an avanc, and to have the avanc tow the floating city to the dangerous rift in reality called the Scar, where it might be possible to do "Probability Mining". More importantly to her and Fennec, her new influence gives her the chance to get a message Fennec has prepared back to New Crobuzon.

The story takes further twists and turns from there -- it's very intelligently plotted, with the motivations of the characters well portrayed, and with plot elements that seem weak later revealed, after a twist or two, to make much more sense. But it's not the plot that is the key to enjoying the book. The characters are also fascinating. Besides Bellis and Tanner and Fennec, there are such Armadan figures as the Lovers, male and female leaders of Armada's strongest "riding", who scar each other symmetrically during their S&Mish lovemaking; Uther Doul, the dour and enigmatic bodyguard with a sword forged by the creatures who made the Scar, a sword that flickers through multiple possible outcomes, possible paths, at once; and the Brucolac, a vampir, and a fairly conventional one, but still strikingly portrayed.

As in Perdido Street Station, Mieville invents fascinating part-human species, hybrids of humans and other forms, in this book most strikingly the anophelii, mosquito men, and, more scarily and affectingly, mosquito women. In the end it is Mieville's fervent, sometimes overheated, imagination, that drives the book. His descriptions of cruel and dirty places, and odd creatures, are endless intriguing. Yes, he sometimes luxuriates overmuch in grotesquerie, but I suspect any application of discipline to his imagination would lose us more neat visions than we might gain by avoiding the occasional silliness or vulgarness. The book is also a bit too long -- some of this is the author's delight in showing us this or that cool gross notion he has had, but also I think his sense of pace is weak. A fair number of scenes, I think, could readily have been excised or shortened. (Such as most of the grindylow "interludes".) The other weakness is one fairly common in certain fantasy: when so many weird magical things are allowed, on occasion it seems that things happen, or characters gain powers, for reasons of the plot only. But though the book is a bit overlong, it remains compelling reading, and though the magical happenings aren't always fully consistent, they really don't strain suspension of disbelief too much: on the whole, this is another outstanding effort from Mieville. I'd rank it about even with Perdido Street Station, and perhaps slightly better on the grounds that the plot really is worked out quite well, with plenty of surprises and an honest, satisfying, resolution.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Rick Wilber

Today is Rick Wilber's 71st birthday. I've gotten to know Rick fairly well meeting him at numerous conventions over the past years -- he's  a St. Louis native, and I live there, which makes one connection, and Rick is the son of a major league ballplayer (Del Wilber) and a baseball player and fan himself -- and I wasn't much of a ballplayer after hitting .600 or so in Little League (I was exposed once I saw a curveball), but I'm still a fan, so there's another connection. Rick's also a damn fine writer, and his story "Today is Today" will be in my 2019 Best of the Year book. His stories often feature baseball as a major element, and sometimes St. Louis as well (so that, for example, I'm pretty sure I know exactly what Kirkwood nursing home is mentioned in "Walking to Boston".) Here's a selection of my reviews of his more recent stories in Locus:

Locus, November 2010

Better still is Rick Wilber’s “Several Items of Interest” (Asimov's, October-November), the latest in a series of stories about the aftermath of the invasion of Earth by the S’hudonni. It concerns two brothers. Inevitably, one is a collaborator, who has been rewarded profoundly (with wealth, health, and sex) for telling the S’hudoni story as they – or as his patron, Twoclicks – want it told. The other is a resistance leader. That’s an old story, and Wilber doesn’t do anything fundamentally new with it, but the familiar ground is traveled very well. We see the brothers’ personal history, and why each chose his path, and we see the complications of S’hudoni politics, and the choices are not as straightforward as might be expected. As I say – nothing much here is really new, but it’s quite fun.

Locus, April 2012

Rick Wilber's novelette “Something Real” (Asimov's, April-May) takes on baseball player and spy Moe Berg, in a story set in multiple alternate worlds during World War II, in which he must wrestle with the notion of assassinating Werner Heisenberg, who may have been on the cusp of developing an atomic bomb for Germany. '

Locus, November 2015

Probably the best thing in the October-November Asimov's is Rick Wilber's “Walking to Boston”, set in WWII Ireland and in 1980s St. Louis, as Harry Mack visits his wife in a Kirkwood, MO, nursing home and indulges her desire to travel to Boston, where he'd promised to take her on their honeymoon. Niamh was an Irish girl whom he met when his bomber crashed on the way to England during the War, and we hear of the crash, and how Harry and Niamh met, and her grandmother and the “sisters”, and Harry's less than faithful treatment of her after their marriage. Most of us will guess who the “sisters” are easily enough, but they are mainly a vehicle for a story of character, and a nicely done story it is.

Locus, July 2018

Asimov’s for May/June opens and closes with entertaining novellas. Rick Wilber and Alan Smale offer “The Wandering Warriors”, about a semipro baseball team, just after World War II (in a slightly alternate history), who are then transported to ancient Rome, at the time of the interregnum between the Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. Luckily their catcher and leader, the Professor, knows Latin, and they are able to land on their feet, so to speak, ending up in the Colosseum for a baseball tournament in celebration of the two new Emperors. Of course, there is intrigue, involving the famously awful Caracalla and his rivalry with his somewhat nicer brother, and particularly their mother, Julia Domna, who turns out to be a good baseball player in her own right (though in our history she’d have been about 50 at the time). I have to say the Romans' ready adoption of baseball didn’t really convince me, but the story remains a good read.

Locus, September 2018

Rick Wilber’s “Today is Today” (Stonecoast Review, Summer) reflects on parallel universes as the narrator meditates on numerous alternate tracks his life might have taken, concerning his sports career, his relationship with his wife, and especially the life of his daughter, who in most of these tracks has Down Syndrome. (The early reference to the Billikens of Loyola University of St. Louis clued this St. Louis resident in right away to the fact that the prime universe displayed here is not our own!) Again – the story is in the end about a father and his daughter – and quite movingly so – the SFnal apparatus is an enabling element, but used quite effectively.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Birthday Review: Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn

Today is Timothy Zahn's 68th birthday. He's perhaps best known for his Star Wars novels, but he's done a lot of pretty enjoyable SF on his own. And he's a fellow U of I grad -- a few years (8, I suppose!) before me. Here's what I wrote about the first book in a YA series that I read with enjoyment until the end.

Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is probably best-known for his Star Wars novelizations, which seem to be fairly well-regarded among media tie-in books, and SW novelizations in particular. I haven't read them myself. He first appeared in the field with stories in Analog, one of which ("Cascade Point") won a Hugo, and with some military SF novels. I've found his writing (I've only read short fiction) fairly enjoyable -- he usually tells a decent story. I believe he has said that he has made enough money from the SW books to write what he wants nowadays.

His new book [as of 2003], advertised as the first of a series, is Dragon and Thief. This is basically a Young Adult novel. I enjoyed it quite a lot -- it is quite satisfying not too ambitious space adventure. It is, to use that most cliche of terms, a good read. There are a few nice ideas incorporated into a fairly routine plot, with a story resolved acceptably in this book, as well as the beginning of a story arc that will probably be quite sufficient for a series.

There are two main characters, announced by the title. The Dragon is an alien called Draycos (the implausible dragon-like given name (possibly handwaved away in the text but so what) is one of a few lazy things about the world-building), a "warrior-poet" of a race of symbiotic beings. These folks and their host species are fleeing a genocidally evil alien race from another arm of the Galaxy, in hopes of colonizing a likely world in our arm. The advance team, including Draycos and his host, arrives only to find that they have been betrayed -- the bad guys are waiting and kill everyone except Draycos. And Draycos, like all his species, can only survive about six hours without a host.

The Thief is Jack Morgan, a teenaged boy who has been working criminally with his Uncle Virge for some time. He wants to go straight, and be a cargo-hauler with his Uncle's ship, but already they have been framed and accused of stealing some valuable cargo. They flee to an empty world -- which not surprisingly is the world where Draycos's people ended up. And it turns out that humans, such as Jack, are an acceptable host for the dragons -- so when Jack investigates Draycos's crashed ship, he finds himself with an unwanted guest.

The neat characteristic of Draycos's people is that they can occupy other dimensions, staying in contact with our 3-d space in 2-d form, as a sort of tattoo on their host. I thought that a really cute idea, and well-handled in the book. There is another secret about Jack that Zahn hides well for a while, which I won't reveal -- partly because I guessed it myself and had fun guessing it. At any rate Draycos agrees to help Jack figure out who framed he and his Uncle, and maybe solve that problem -- but in return he wants to stay with Jack as a host for as long as possible, and he hopes Jack will help him discover who betrayed them, and find a means of countering the threat of the genocidal aliens.

The story is fast-moving and fun and at least believable enough for this sort of book, and the main characters are enjoyable to be with. The book points a moral, mainly about Jack needing to learn that cooperation with another person for a larger goal than self-advancement is a good thing -- and it does so pretty naturally and without too much preaching. I liked it as very nice light reading -- I'll read the next book in the series for sure and probably the whole thing -- and I would think it an excellent book to recommend to early teenaged readers looking for good YA SF in pretty much the Heinlein Juvenile mode.