Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 115: Solar Lottery, by Philip K. Dick/The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

Ace Double Reviews, 115: Solar Lottery, by Philip K. Dick/The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett (#D-103, 1955, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Robert E. Schulz)
I bought a copy of this Ace Double for a surprisingly good price -- Philip Dick's work often costs more than I'm happy paying. I have different editions of both books, but this seemed like a book worth having. So I'm assembling an Ace Double review from my previous reviews of these novels independently.

It is a pretty significant book for an Ace Double -- two major writers, each of who would surely have been a Grand Master had they not died too soon. Each have writing credits on major SF movies, Dick of course for the original novel behind Blade Runner (and for quite a few other films of varying quality), and Brackett for the first version of the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back. They are very different writers, but each very important in their own way.

Solar Lottery was Philip Dick's first novel, and this 1955 Ace Double was its first edition. (There was a UK hardcover a year later retitled World of Chance.) It seems to be reasonably well regarded but I must say I found it a mess. It's set in a future in which the leader of the Solar System is chosen by lottery. The current leader, Quizmaster Verrick, has held the position for 10 years, even though assassins are selected by lot to try to kill him. Most of society is controlled by corporations that rate people, theoretically according to their abilities. People swear allegiance to individuals or corporations. As the novel opens, Ted Benteley is at last able to legally escape his allegiance to his corporation, and he travels to Batavia (now Djakarta, of course) in Indonesia, seat of the government, to try to work for the Quizmaster. Unbeknownst to him, however, a new Quizmaster has just been selected, an "unclassified" named Leon Cartwright. Benteley is fooled into swearing direct allegiance to the old Quizmaster.

Cartwright has long been a Prestonite, devotee of the mad theories of John Preston, who believed in a tenth planet beyond Pluto called Flame Disc. Cartwright has just supervised the launch of a spaceship intended to reach Flame Disc, and his only hope of his new Quizmaster position is to buy time for the ship to reach Flame Disc before Solar authorities stop it. As soon as he becomes Quizmaster, Verrick sets in place a plan to fix the lottery for the assassin, and to use a remote controlled android as the next assassin. This, along with a clever scheme to sequentially control the android with different people, will allow his assassin to evade the telepathic protectors of the Quizmaster.

So it's kind of a wild, uncontrolled, mix of elements, some clever, some interesting, some just loony. The plot sort of reels along, as Ted is shanghaied to being one of the assassin's controllers, and also as he fools around with an ex-telepath girl now working for Verrick, while his true destiny, natch, is to work with Cartwright and become the next Quizmaster, hopefully in so doing restoring sanity to Earth's government. Everywhere traces of Dick's impressive imagination, as well as various of his obsessions, are clear -- but nowhere do things cohere, nowhere to they make even the weird sense that Dick made in his better novels.

The Big Jump was first published in the February 1953 issue of Space Stories, and this Ace Double was its first book publication. It is some 42,000 words, and I believe the book and magazine versions are essentially the same. It's a curious sort of book, spending much of its length in Brackett's "hard-boiled" mode, and for that portion its not very successful. But right toward the end it effectively switches to her high-romantic mode, and that brief portion is rather nice.

Arch Comyn is a spaceship construction worker. He hears that somebody has completed "the Big Jump" -- travelled to another star. He learns that his close friend Paul Rogers was on the crew. However, details about the expedition have been suppressed. Comyn hears a rumor that the survivors are hidden in a hospital on Mars owned by the Cochrane Company (which built the spaceship involved). Comyn makes his way to Mars and rather implausibly barges into the Cochrane complex, and finds the hospital room with the one survivor, Captain Ballantyne. Ballantyne is dying, but Comyn hears him say just a bit -- a hint about "transuranics". Then Ballantyne dies, and Comyn is in the custody of the Cochrane Company, who try to beat his secret out of him. Eventually they let him go, and he heads back to Earth, concerned that the secret of what Ballantyne found on a planet of Barnard's Star will be of altogether too much interest to several parties. And indeed, Comyn detects a tail -- but then he sees Cochrane heiress Sydna Cochrane on TV, making a toast to Ballantyne and hinting that a visit from Comyn would be welcome.

Soon Comyn is confronting Sydna, though not before shaking two separate tails, one of whom tries to kill him. Sydna, who is 100% pure Lauren Bacall (remember, this is Brackett in her "tough guy thriller" mode), convinces Comyn to follow her to the Cochrane complex on Luna. Once there, Comyn to his horror sees what's left of Ballantyne -- even though he is dead, his body somehow still lives mindlessly. Before long, he is a) having an affair with Sydna, and b) pushing to join the second expedition to Barnard's Star. After some more hijinks (another assassination attempt), Comyn and a few Cochranes (and some redshirts) are on their way to Barnard's Star. One of the "Cochranes" is William Stanley, a weaselly cousin-by-marriage who lusts after Sydna despite his married state. Stanley reveals that he has stolen the lost logs of the Ballantyne expedition, and he uses this vital knowledge to negotiate controlling interest in the prospective Transuranic company.

Then they arrive at Barnard's Star, and the novel changes tone entirely, to something transcendental, much more reminiscent of the best of Brackett's planetary romances. The other members of the first expedition are found, living in a primitive state with the presumptive natives of the planet. (Natives who seem to be fully humanoid for no reason at all!) Comyn finds his friend Paul Rogers, who refuses to return to Earth. It seems that beings called the Transuranae, composed of transuranic elements, have conferred immortality and freedom from conflict and want on the inhabitants of this planet. So once again we confront the choice -- intellect, striving, knowledge vs. bliss and contentment. (Cf. countless other SF stories, such as "The Milk of Paradise" by Tiptree.) It's no surprise what Comyn chooses (or has chosen for him), but Brackett presents the alternatives in her most evocative style, and really this final section is quite effective.

It's not one of Brackett's best works, but in the end it's decent stuff. The first part, however, is full of plot holes and implausibilities. As well as plain silly stuff like the horror everyone feels at seeing the quasi-living Ballantyne -- still twitching after his death. Spooky, maybe, but not the stuff of Lovecraftian horror as Brackett would have us believe.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

In Memoriam, Michael Blumlein

Rudy Rucker has reported that Michael Blumlein has died, aged 71. I didn't know Blumlein, though I reprinted his exceptional 2012 story "Twenty-Two and You" in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2013 Edition. But I have been intrigued by his work since discovering his 1986 story, "The Brains of Rats". (We reprinted "The Brains of Rats" at Lightspeed here.) So I will memorialize him in the way I have: by remembering his stories, via things I've written about them, for Locus and for my pre-Locus SFF Net newsgroup.

Also, he has a new novel, or long novella, out this year from It's called Longer, and I missed it earlier but will get it it now.

F&SF Summary, 2000

"Fidelity: a Primer" (September) just struck me as charming and somehow "true".  I really liked it.  I think as things stand now it's my favorite novelette of the year,

And the following, from a discussion about the definition of SF:
[Gordon van Gelder here brings up "Fidelity: a Primer", a Michael Blumlein F&SF story from 2000, one of my favorite stories of that year. The story is at best only barely SF (I thought is was, but I agree that you could read it differently). But, Gordon suggests, it is important to the success of the story that the reader suspect that it might turn out to be SF. I.e., the venue affects reader expectations, and thus affects the typical reading of the story, possibly in important ways. Interesting, though I admit to being made uneasy by the implication that "Fidelity: a Primer" would be a lesser story if published in the New Yorker.]

2001 Recommended Reading

And Michael Blumlein's "Know How, Can Do" (F&SF, December) combines some clever wordplay -- clever but also thematically meaningful -- with a quite original story about a real scientific idea with real consequences, and real, if decidedly odd, characters facing loss.

Locus, July 2008

The cover story for F&SF in July is a novella from the always interesting Michael Blumlein. “The Roberts” concerns a brilliant architect whose workaholic ways lay waste to his love life. He hits upon a creepy solution – designing his own lover – but this too has pitfalls. It’s a nice story, but a bit too obvious in its working out, and it lacks the shocking originality that characterizes Blumlein’s best work.

Flurb Summary, 2008

My favorite story was Michael Blumlein's "The Big One" (#6), only barely fantastical, indeed almost Carveresque at times, about four men who knew each other in high school fishing much later in life, with lots of, well, life issues impending.

Locus, March 2012

Also first-rate is “Twenty-Two and You”, by Michael Blumlein (F&SF, March-April), which quite plausibly addresses the idea of genetic fixes for inherited diseases. Here a young couple wants to have children, but family history suggests that pregnancy might be very risky for the wife. So she has her genome sequenced, and learns the bad news. But it is possible in this near future to change your genome … but the genome is a complicated thing. This is a nice example of a story with no villains, indeed no fools, but still sadness. An excellent piece of pure science fiction in the sense that it closely examines the effects of scientific change on real people.

Locus, January 2014

Just one magazine to cover this month, the last F&SF of 2013. The longest story is “Success”, by Michael Blumlein, one of our most interesting and original writers. Alas, this story, about a brilliant scientist who goes, it seems mad, never really came to life for me. Dr. Jim, the central character, is cured, after a fashion, and marries again, a long-suffering woman, also an academic. He is working on his life's work, a book about the gene, the epigene, and the paragene, while she is pursuing tenure in a more ordinary fashion. Dr. Jim also battles something, or someone, mysterious in the basement, and becomes obsessed with building something in the backyard, to his wife's eventual disgust … leading to a reversal of fortunes, perhaps … Blumlein is never uninteresting, but as I aid, here he doesn't really – forgive me – succeed.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Old Bestseller: Father Goose: His Book, by L. Frank Baum

Old Besteller: Father Goose: His Book, by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow

a review by Rich Horton

I found this book at an estate sale, and it looked intriguing. Turns out nice copies are very valuable. My copy isn't exactly nice, but it's in tolerable shape for a book from 1899. It was definitely a bestseller, a major one, I think. My copy was the third printing, 15000 copies, in November 1899. The first edition (September 1899) was 5700 copies, the second, in October, was 10,000 copies.

You all know Lyman Frank Baum, I trust. He was born in 1856 and died in 1919. His early adult life was financially rather a mess, with a series of not terribly successful ventures in poultry breeding, acting, and sales. He moved from New York to South Dakota (which became, more or less, the Kansas of The Wizard of Oz) then to Chicago. While in Chicago he published a children's book called Mother Goose in Prose (1897), illustrated by Maxwell Parrish(!), that was fairly successful. This led to the book at hand, Father Goose, which was the bestselling children's book of 1899. And in 1900 he published The Wizard of Oz, and we know where that went! (Though, despite its enormous success, Baum's financial incompetence, and his grandiose theatrical plans, led to later money problems.) W. W. Denslow, the illustrator of Father Goose, also illustrated (and shared copyright in) the first couple of Oz books, which led to a nasty breakup when they quarreled over credit.

Baum, anyway, eventually found his way to California. He wrote about 16 Oz books and several other fantasies. He was involved in multiple musical productions of Oz related work, and some plays, and early movies, often to his financial detriment. He also reputedly designed parts of the Hotel Del Coronado, on an island near San Diego. After his death, other authors, most notably Ruth Plumly Thompson, continued the Oz series.

(For what it's worth -- fairly little -- I worked with a guy name Francis Baum for a while a number of years ago. He seemed nonplussed by allusions to Oz.)

As for Father Goose: His Book? Well, what it purports to be is "modern" verses in the style of the Mother Goose rhymes. Is it successful? To my ears, not really. The poems seem mostly a bit labored, and the conceits not terribly interesting. Part of the problem is some horribly racist bits -- the piece about the n-word boy is all but impossible to read today, and the stories about Chinamen and the Irish aren't much better. But if we ascribe those to not exactly hostile, just insensitive, views of the time the book was written, still, the poems just aren't much fun. That's not entirely fair -- one in three, maybe, are kind of cute. But never, really, lasting. The Mother Goose rhymes endure -- and deservedly so. And these are forgotten -- deservedly so too, I'd say.

(But for all that, The Wizard of Oz is remembered, and absolutely deservedly so!)

Finally, I must mention the pictures, by W. W. Denslow. And these really are quite nice. As noted above, the original Oz illustrations were also by Denslow, and they are very fine as well. Finally, I should mention that this book is hand-lettered, quite well, by Ralph Fletcher Seymour.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Charles Stross

Charlie Stross turns 55 today (damn kids!), so it's a good time for a look at his short fiction!

Locus, February 2002

Asimov's also features the latest of Charles Stross' stories about Manfred Macx, genius information entrepreneur in a frenetic near-Singularity future.  In "Tourists", Manfred's enhanced glasses, and attached memory, are stolen, and he finds himself essentially unable to cope. Fortunately, his lover Annette and his AI cat Aineko are soon on his track, and there is a chance for a solution, involving alien tourists, lobsters, and avatars of a dead man. I don't think this is the best of Stross' Macx stories -- perhaps the idea density which has been so impressive throughout the series is losing some impact -- but it is another solid outing by one of the most impressive of Britain's "Radical Hard SF" clade.

Locus, June 2002

The latest of Charles Stross's Manfred Macx stories is "Halo" (Asimov's, June), stepping forward a generation to focus on Manfred's daughter, Amber. Amber has sold herself into slavery to herself, in order to escape the clutches of her mother, Manfred's villainous ex-wife, the IRS agent Pamela. But Mom finds a way to get at Amber even in the Jupiter system. How can Amber deal with this latest threat? As with earlier Macx stories, the real meat is in the tossed-off details of life as we approach a Vingean singularity, and in the clever touch Stross displays in describing his high-tech future and its economics – such as an asteroid taking on the personality of Barney ("I love you, you love me, it's the law of gravity …"). Beyond the jokes and tech Stross has a bigger story to tell in this series, and "Halo" advances the overall arc an intriguing bit.

Locus, October 2002

The other novella, perhaps even stronger, is the latest and to date longest of Charles Stross' Manfred Macx stories, "Router" (Asimov's, October). Manfred's daughter Amber, the Queen of the Ring Imperium (a monarchy located around Jupiter), has sent virtual copies of herself and her court on a lightsail-propelled ship to a brown dwarf. She and her people hope to find a router there for interstellar communication (based on information they have gleaned from the "lobsters" of the very first story in the series). She is also dealing with another lawsuit from her estranged mother – luckily the local laws of her monarchy apply, including trial by combat. And back home in the inner Solar System, humanity is close to a Vingean singularity. This story, as with all of Stross' recent stories, is just brimming with, put most simply, Very Cool Ideas, and it also still manages to have likeable characters, a clever and involving plot, and an intriguing resolution opening up nicely to the next story in the sequence. (How Stross will keep upping the ante as the series continues, though, I surely don't know!)

Locus, January 2003

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

Locus, December 2003

The December Asimov's features two more novellas. Charles Stross's "Curator" is the latest in his Accelerando series, following Manfred Macx and his descendants as humanity goes through a Vingean Singularity. This story introduces Manfred's grandson Sirhan. Sirhan is waiting for his "mother" Amber to return from her trip to the Router, an alien installation at another star. He plans to claim all her assets as child support, even though he is really the child of another, now dead, version of Amber. Manfred's long-estranged first wife has her own plans for her family. While of course Aineko the cat has other ideas. It's more of the same fascinating stuff as the earlier stories in the series, but it doesn't work quite as well. I think this is because this story seems more a transition, more part of an eventual novel, less self-contained. Still, the wit and audacious inventiveness that we expect from Stross remain.

Locus, February 2004

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

Locus, August 2004

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

Locus, October 2004

With Charles Stross, still often called a "hot new writer" though he has been publishing almost as long as McHugh, we can segue neatly from September to October-November at Asimov's, as these issues see the final two stories of his acclaimed Accelerando sequence. "Elector" (second to last) is set on Saturn, where the remnants of relatively normal humanity, including a number of resurrected people based on historical figures, live in an artificial habitat. Amber Macx believes that the "Vile Offspring", humankind's descendants, running on "computronium" in the inner System, will soon destroy Saturn, so she is running for office, with a platform advocating escape on a starship. Sirhan, for whom Amber is an "eigenmother" (his mother was another version of Amber), regards her candidacy with some suspicion, especially as he suspects her of throwing a loose woman, Rita, at him. Manfred Macx, reincarnated, shows up as well. The final story is "Survivor", set decades later in a new human system built around a brown dwarf, using hacked alien "Router" technology. Sirhan and Rita have a son, Manni, who has some secrets of his own, which become significant when the artificial cat Aineko returns, wanting to close a long ago bargain. Both stories are enjoyable, though I think I liked "Survivor" more. "Elector" is denser with ideas but thin as a story – "Survivor", with the advantage of being the last in the series, comes to some real, and interesting, conclusions about Galactic society and the pitfalls of the Singularity.

Locus, April 2006

Probably best of all in One Million A. D. is Charles Stross’s “Missile Gap”, which at first blush seems to violate the anthology’s guidelines: it is set in roughly the present day, though on a rather altered Earth. But not to worry! At any rate this Earth is sufficiently weird to hold one’s interest no matter how far in the future the story is set! It seems to have been moved, as of 1962, to an enormous disk, with escape velocity such that space travel is impossible. But the Cold War continues, sort of. The story follows an American effort to colonize a dangerous new continent, and a Soviet effort to explore the disk using an Ekranoplane – a very large seaplane. Disturbing discoveries are made by both groups, which might lead to more understanding of what has happened to Earth. But a third thread follows a shadowy spy, who it turns out has quite a different agenda to pursue, one with rather stark implications for humanity as a whole.

Locus, May 2006

Indeed Stross and Wolfe provide two of the better stories in Baen's Universe's first issue. Stross’s “Pimpf” is a short novelette about the Laundry, the secret agency at the heart of his novel The Atrocity Archive. In this case Bob Howard has to deal with a new employee getting lost in a computer game, as well as menacing Human Resources types.

Locus, December 2006

Oh look – it’s 2007 already! At any rate, here is the January 2007 Asimov’s. The cover story is a very fun outing from Charles Stross called “Trunk and Disorderly”, a new entry in the shortish list of stories about “Elephants in Spaaace!” The elephant this time is a pet dwarf mammoth foisted on the narrator, Ralph, by his sister. Ralph is a member of the Dangerous Drop Club, and he is planning a drop from orbit to the surface of Mars. So he is not at all pleased to have to deal with a mammoth – especially after his sex-robot has just left him, and as he tries to break in a new butler. The whole confection is, as might seem clear, a bit Wodehousian, with SFnal interest supplied by details such as various semi-mechanical characters, and by the new political organization of the Solar System which includes, for instance, an Emirate of Mars, and by plenty of Stross’s slick offhanded incluing of future brainstem kicks. The plot is breakneck enough, involving a scheme to overturn the Emir, but plot hardly matters here – what matters is the fun we have getting to the end.

Locus, February 2010

Story collections often have good new stories as well. Indeed, often novellas, as with Charles Stross’s Wireless, an excellent collection throughout, that closes with a brilliant time travel novella, “Palimpsest”. Pierce is recruited from something like our time by agents of the Stasis, an organization a bit like Asimov’s Eternity, devoted to preserving Earth and humanity across time and until the end of time. Stross extrapolates dizzyingly from this concept, showing us multiple histories of humanity, and multiple futures for the Solar System (and indeed Galaxy), and clever and chilling means of enforcement of Stasis, and inevitably the other side, the opponents. Pierce is given a real life (or lives) with emotional weight, and real decisions to make. The Asimov reference is purposeful – I have no doubt Stross had The End of Eternity in mind when writing this story – but the story is its own.

Birthday Review: Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

Today is Charles Stross's birthday. I plan to put together a look at his short fiction later, but for the morning, how about this review of one of his early novels.

Iron Sunrise is a sequel to Charles Stross's 2003 novel Singularity Sky. Sequel isn't a precise term here -- Singularity Sky resolved its story quite well, and this novel is set in the same universe and features the two main characters of the previous novel in important roles, but the main conflict is completely new. Stross wrote one other novelette in this universe ("Bear Trap"), and he now declares himself finished. It's an interesting setup, and could certainly profitably be mined for further stories, but he seems to feel it has become a bit shopworn, and a bit outdated. Anyway, he has a fecund imagination, and his other ongoing work (The Atrocity Archives, Accelerando, The Family Trade) certainly shows that he will not lack for interesting settings.

I was tempted, when I first wrote this, to defer entirely to Charles Oberndorf's review in a recent New York Review of Science Fiction. Oberndorf, it seemed to me, captured the strengths and weaknesses of the book very well. So I recommend you read it if you can -- but I'll do something quick here as well.

The story opens as "a nondescript McWorld named Moscow" is dying -- its sun having been detonated by some enemy. They immediately blame a rival world, New Dresden, and automatic defenses launch a reprisal. But is New Dresden really to blame? And even if they are, is there any point to destroying yet another system?

One of the refugees fleeing the effects of the Moscow disaster is a teenager named Victoria Strowger, who calls herself Wednesday. Guided by her imaginary friend, she tracks down a mysterious piece of information on her home station before leaving. Her friend is named Herman -- which reveals to any reader of Singularity Sky that "he" is in fact an agent of the Eschaton, a post-singularity intelligence which aims to protect its existence by severely prohibiting certain atrocities and especially causality violations. Even in her new home, Wednesday realizes that she is a target -- for reasons she doesn't really understand. So she escapes on a ship heading to -- New Dresden.

A variety of other people are also involved. The coming attack on New Dresden is something the UN wishes to prevent, and the agent assigned to the problem is Rachel Mansour, heroine of Singularity Sky. She and her husband Martin Springfield end up on the same ship with Wednesday. So does a veteran political blogger named Frank. And so too are representatives of a vile group of Nazis-in-Space(tm). It appears this last group may have something to do with the problems at both Moscow and New Dresden. They are determined enemies of the Eschaton. And they have a special interest in Wednesday, and whatever she may have learned ...

It's a fast moving and fun story, with plenty of pretty neat ideas. It's a bit more smoothly written than Singularity Sky. It resolves intelligently and fairly satisfyingly -- perhaps there is just a hint of the over-convenient about the conclusion. Oberndorf's review also points out, quite sensibly, that Stross's imagination, so fecund at times, fails him at other times. One way is that all his worlds seem pretty bland (though this is actually explained by the terraforming action of the Eschaton). Another problem is the way Wednesday is portrayed -- as a pretty typical disaffected 90s goth girl, to a first approximation. In sum -- a good book, one of the better SF novels of the year, but no more than good.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Bruce McAllister

As with many writers, my Locus career doesn't encompass all of Bruce McAllister's exceptional short fiction. But he has published some exceptional work since 2002 ... so here's what I've written about him, in honor of his birthday today.

Locus, April 2004

Amid a group of decent stories in the April F&SF, two of the shortest stand out. Bruce McAllister's "The Seventh Daughter" is very short indeed, less than three pages, but quite affecting, about a boy and a model village he makes and the stories he invents about it -- and how this affects his adult life.

Locus, January 2006

“Kin”, by Bruce McAllister (Asimov's, February), is an affecting, but also somewhat chilling, story of a boy who tries to hire an alien assassin to kill the man who wants to kill his sister (that is, abort his mother’s unborn child). The alien and the boy strike up a relationship, and we learn a lot about the assassin in particular – and we get hints about where the boy’s life may lead him.

Locus, June 2007

Fantasy Magazine #6 has several very nice pieces. Bruce McAllister's "His Wife" again evokes an American childhood in Italy, here from the perspective of a middle-aged man returning to Italy with his now grown son. He takes him to meet the aged woman who had fascinated him in his childhood. She is near death, but she has yet another surprise for him.

Locus, October 2010

From Northern Ireland comes Albedo One. Number 38 features another of Bruce McAllister’s ongoing series of fantasies about a teenaged American boy in an Italian village. In “Heart of Hearts” the fourteen-year-old narrator experiences what we might call “puppy love” with a mysterious local girl, who makes patterns in the sand with seashells, and who cannot swim because she is narcoleptic. And who might have some connection with the old local story about Percy Bysshe Shelley … All these stories are sensitive, atmospheric, quiet, and cumulatively absorbing.

Locus, June 2017

Bruce McAllister’s “This is for You”, in the May Lightspeed, is a brief and quite disquieting SF story. The narrator is a boy just returned to Earth from Pitipek, a planet near Tau Ceti, still adjusting to human ways – and human girls. But he starts to make friends with Mala, and decides to make a painting for her. All innocent enough, but we realize that painting on Pitipek is not quite like painting on Earth

Locus, October 2017

There’s a good set of stories in the August Lightspeed. “Ink”, by Bruce McCallister is a subtly realized tale of a boy with hemophilia who collects stamps, and while living in Italy asks for old stamps from an old lady – and the letters she finds bring up memories of her past, and of her husband and son, lost during the War.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Daniel Hatch

Daniel Hatch had a recent birthday, and so in his honor, here are some of my reviews of his short fiction from Locus. Hatch is an Analog regular (and, one might add, one of those Analog regulars (there are quite a few) who disprove the notion that Analog is a haven for politically conservative writers), and consistently one of their most interesting contributors.

Locus, January 2003

The lead novella for the January Analog, Daniel Hatch's "Seed of Destiny", concerns a planet inhabited by aliens with strangely mutable genetics. The result is that many species are sentient, but that they can't control their offspring's' sentience, and thus a durable civilization is almost impossible. A human scientist studying the problem makes a breakthrough, but then is kidnapped by an aggressive species hoping to use his knowledge to maintain their own power. The central idea, which reminded me a bit of the main idea in Brian Stableford's novel Dark Ararat, is very interesting, and the slow working out of the consequences is well handled.

Locus, October 2007

Analog for October has a pretty strong lineup overall, highlighted by the lead novella, Daniel Hatch’s “An Angelheaded Hipster Escapes”, and by an Ekaterina Sedia short story, “Virus Changes Skin”. Hatch’s story is about a man from the 20th Century, Jonathon Bender, who has ended up a brain in a box (fairly literally) and a slave to AIs running a space station. (I wonder if both Bender’s name and his situation are nods to the delightful animated show Futurama.) Bender’s scheme for escape ends up getting him stolen by Penelope Antoinette de Sandino y Murphy, one of the Twenty-Seven Families who rule Ciudad de Cielo: an enclave of a group supporting “pure humanity” – no AI upgrades – based in the former Ecuador at the site of an abandoned attempt at a space elevator. Penelope has her own issues, involving political intrigue among the families and a slimy boyfriend, and Jonathon needs to be proven human to escape ownership by the corporation that had previously bought him. This story really only introduces these issues, and the interesting future behind all this. It’s entertaining on its own, and I’m sure it is a precursor to future Penelope and Jonathon stories.

Locus, July 2009

Two long novellas dominate the July-August Double issue of Analog. Daniel Hatch’s “Seeds of Revolution” follows from a couple of earlier stories about a planet where the dominant species takes on multiple forms – is multiple species, if you will. That idea is scientifically interesting, but has been treated with more rigor elsewhere (in Brian Stableford’s Dark Ararat, to name one novel, and in a way in another story I’ll mention later in the column). Hatch here is more interested in having fun – though politically engaged fun, and darkly tinged – with the idea of having intelligent animals of various shapes running around. He explicitly evokes most obviously Pogo (the main character looks like an opossum and somehow has an alien name that is rendered Pog) and the Scarlet Pimpernel (though at times it seems a bit odd to have a fire-breathing Socialist take on the character of an avowed Royalist). Most veteran SF readers will be reminded inevitably of Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson’s Hokas.

Locus, May 2012

Analog for May opens with a long – perhaps too long – novella from Daniel Hatch, “The End of Ordinary Life”. Thomas O'Reilly is an Alaskan bush pilot in a near future in which the US is falling apart, Canada is opposing it, and an old man names Clayton Shaw, it turns out, has met an alien. The plot is mainly a slightly too heavy-handed account of a government crackdown that O'Reilly gets involved in, partly because of his four girlfriends, and how the alien (a bit too conveniently) helps things out. That part is just OK, but O'Reilly and his girlfriends are enjoyable if a bit familiar as characters, and the depiction of Alaska is quite involving.

Locus, November 2012

Daniel Hatch's “Siege Perilous” is a nice Analog story from the November issue. It's set in an isolated asteroid habitat, which comes under attack. The target is the advance “cog” technology being studied in the asteroid. The means of resistance combines an unusual gambit by the crusty leader of the asteroid's people, as well as, basically, advanced anti-virus tech – and more. A brief note following the story claims “ideas are the soul of any science fiction story”, and “Siege Perilous” is chock full of ideas: about computing, about war, about economics, about life in space, and about people.

Locus, December 2013

Daniel Hatch is one of the most consistently interesting of Analog writers, and “The Chorus Line” is the best piece in the December issue of that magazine. A rich man has hired an expert “time viewer” to prove that another man's spectacular discovery about the origins of man is a fraud. But in the end what they do discover about the first humans, in the Olduvai Gorge area, is more important than questions of fraud … not a major work, but a nice small moving piece.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Walter Jon Williams

Today is Walter Jon Williams' 66th birthday. So here's a set of my Locus reviews of his short fiction, as we await his next Quillifer novel, due in just a couple of weeks.

Locus, July 2002

Worlds That Weren't is an anthology of four Alternate History novellas. Walter Jon Williams in "The Last Ride of German Freddie" gets credit for the wackiest idea: bring Friedrich Nietszche to the American West, specifically Tombstone at the time of the gunfight at the OK Corrall.

Locus, May 2003

The lead novella in the May Asimov's is Walter Jon Williams's "Margaux", set in his Praxis universe. The story itself is an effective portrait of Gredel, a beautiful young woman who is the girlfriend of a small-time. Gredel's accidental befriending of Caro, a bored aristocrat, drives the story. She witness Caro's empty life, and her boyfriend's increasingly risky life, her mother's status as a kept woman, and her stepmother's abuse at the hands of her husband. The lessons Gredel learns seem unavoidable in her situation – but the upshot is chilling. A solid story, with a convincing and ambiguous central character. What's missing is anything much in the way of SFnal punch, though I suspect that placing the story in its larger Praxis universe context would supply that.

Locus, November 2003

The word count in the October-November Asimov's doesn't disappoint either -- there are three long novellas (at close to 30,000 words apiece) among 7 stories. My favorite is Walter Jon Williams' "The Green Leopard Plague". A mermaid, Michelle, is hiding out on a remote South Pacific island. She makes her money doing deep background historical research, using what remains of the Net after much social upheaval and the Lightspeed War. Her client wants details about a mysterious gap in the life of Jonathan Terzian, who in that gap went from obscure Philosophy professor to the founder of a new economic and social order based engineering people to use chlorophyll for basic nourishment. (We gather that much more has changed in the intervening centuries -- people are mostly immortal, and can alter themselves to do much more than use chorophyll: for example, they can become mermaids.) The search details are interspersed with the actual story of Terzian's crucial weeks, as he encounters a mysterious woman on the run from a former Soviet mob of sorts; and he ends up helping her escape while learning the secret she carries. Michelle's is also dealing with a former lover, who "died" but has been restored from a backup, and who won't accept that she is no longer interested in him. The resolution to each thread has a nice sting in the tail, with a message about the ambiguity of historical knowledge buried in one story; and with a nice variation an age-old tale of jealousy emerging from the other.

Locus, September 2004

Walter Jon Williams's "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" (Sci Fiction, August 4) is great fun. Ernesto is a member of an Andean folk music group that is a front for an organization that does borderline illegal services for the right price. He is hired to retrieve a certain cargo from the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Hong Kong. Thus he must subcontract some dive experts, who happen to be members of a water ballet troop. Then they join a cruise ship as part of the entertainment, and make their way to Hong Kong, only to find that a rival group is not far behind. Plenty of action, humor, double-crossing, and even some science-fictional macguffins are on hand. Light stuff, indeed, but a joy to read.

Locus, November 2004

Between Worlds is a fine collection of novellas, edited for the SFBC by Robert Silverberg. The general theme is far distant stars – the "Galactic frontier". Walter Jon Williams offers a long piece set in his Praxis universe, "Investments", in which a couple of the heroes of the Praxis books investigate some shady business on a newly opened planet – but end up encountering a very dangerous astronomical anomaly.

Locus, June 2007

Still better in Alien Crimes is Walter Jon Williams's novel length "Womb of Every World". This opens in a fantasy-like setting, with a man named Aristide who has a magic sword and a talking cat. He heroically organizes a mission to flush out some bandits who seem to have been sacrificing caravan travelers to their evil god. But of course much more is going on than the fairly standard fantasy setup this seems to be -- in fact, the bog standard nature of the setup ends up being part of the point. Aristide is investigating a much bigger crime than the bandits' actions -- a crime with interesting speculative resonance. So in this case the genres combine beautifully -- the story truly is about a crime, but the crime is very SFnal.

Locus, March 2013

Subterranean for Winter is a special Walter Jon Williams issue, with a good old novella, “Surfacing”, and a new one, “The Boolean Gate” (published last year as a chapbook), which presents Mark Twain late in his life, quite believably, as he encounters Nikola Tesla and a bizarre project. It's been well-received in general, but I confess that while I thought it well done, in particular as to Twain's character, it didn't really work for me as a story.

Locus, October 2017

In “The Triumph of Virtue” (The Book of Swords), Walter Jon Williams introduces the hero of his new fantasy series, Quillifer. The young Quillifer, studying to be a lawyer, and in love with a beautiful woman of the new Queen’s court, gets involved in a mystery aimed, apparently, at the Queen’s inappropriate lover. Quillifer must navigate the shoals of court intrigue to solve the crime – and he learns to his discomfiture that solving the crime is much easier than dealing with an embarrassed Queen.

Birthday Review: Stories of James H. Schmitz

James Schmitz was born in Hamburg, Germany, on this date in 1911. His science fiction, which appeared for three decades from the early '40s to the early '70s, was very enjoyable. Here's a number of things I wrote about some of his stories, and his last, little known, novel.

Planet Stories, May 1951

The James H. Schmitz story that started me on this odyssey, "Captives of the Thieve-Star", is the cover story of the May issue.  Channok and Peer have just got married.  Channok wishes to eventually join the Imperial Secret Service, but Peer is the daughter of a pirate, who hoodwinks Channok into taking some stolen goods and hiding them on an out-of-the-way planet.  On the way, they encounter a derelict ship heading to the same system.  They realize that there was some sort of falling out among the crew, and that there is some valuable stuff on the ship.  But there is sure to be some sort of guard, beyond the deadly poison that killed the people on the ship.  So they bury it on the planet, and go off to hide Peer's father's contraband.  Then the bad guys from the derelict ship show up.  Peer concocts a plan to let Channok get the drop on them, and they trick the bad guys into messing with the strange alien race on the planet.  And that's just about all, except Channok shockingly realizes that the bad guys are ISS members, thus apparently freeing him, conscience-wise, to join up with Peer's family as a pirate.  The plot here isn't that well worked out, but Schmitz' breezy way with characters, especially women, does show through, and the story is pleasant enough reading.  Peer is definitely a Schmitz heroine in the general style of Trigger and Telzey.

Galaxy, November 1955, January 1956

I ended up buying some old Galaxys, the issues for November 1955, and January and February 1956.  I chose these because the Schmitz serial "The Ties of Earth" is included in the November 1955, and January 1956, issues.  (There was no December 1955 issue because of a distribution change.  Guy Gordon tells how he found the November and January issues at a flea market long ago, and waited ten years to read "The Ties of Earth", always looking for that elusive December 1955 issue with the "middle" part of the serial.  Fortunately, I had the ISFDB to tell me that it was only a two-parter, and that there was no December issue.) 

"The Ties of Earth" is about 27,500 words long, just long enough to be an uncomfortable fit in a single magazine issue, but on the short side even for a two part serial.  It's rather uncharacteristic for Schmitz in some ways: it's set only on Earth, in contemporary times.  It does however have his usual obsession with psi powers.  The hero is Alan Commager.  He's in this mid-30s, a fairly wealthy widower.  His friend Jean has asked him to help her get her husband Ira out of the clutches of a seemingly fraudulent group claiming psi powers.  Commager himself recently had a publicized run of "luck" at a dice game, so the hook they use to contact the psi group is to have them test Commager himself for psi powers.  Present at the meeting are a wealthy older man, Herbert Hawkes, and two attractive younger women, Ruth McDonald and "Paylar", and a few other folks.  Paylar is soon revealed to be the most important person present, and she is the one who tests Commager.

Suddenly Commager is waking up at his house, having no memory of what happened. Soon we learn the his powers were apparently real, and that they scared Paylar sufficiently that she arranged things so that nobody realized what had happened.  Then the plot kicks into gear: Ruth McDonald shows up dead at Alan's workplace, Alan is attacked by psi forces. When Alan evades both these attempts to trap him, Paylar confronts him with a story about her group: they are "Old Minds", original humans with limited psi powers.  They are attempting to control "New Minds", much more powerful psis, to keep the Earth safe.  When they find powerful "New Minds", they either convince them to join their organization, or kill them.  Will Alan join?  (As you'll have realized, he is a powerful "New Mind" psi.)

Alan refuses, and the plot resolution involves a few more "psi battles", involving landslides (shades of "Poltergeist"), giant squid attacking Alan's boat, and finally a series of quite shocking twists involving Alan's life history.  The end is a dizzying series of twists and countertwists, as both Paylar and her "Old Minds" and Alan as a "New Mind" seem to gain the upper hand at different times, and to hypnotically convince the other side that they really won.  It's a bit confusing because for a while it isn't clear whether what the author is telling us at any given time is "truth", or "what Alan/Paylar thinks is truth".  Though right at the end it's clear that Alan has come out on top, and that from now on he will nurture "New Minds", who really are not inimical to the Earth at all, but rather the next stage in its "communal evolution", one might say.

I found the story a pretty fun read up until the tiresome ending.  I thought Alan's character was well done, and I was also taken with Jean.  The strongly implied extramarital affair between the two added some nice tension, and furthermore was well-described and convincing.  Paylar was a reasonably interesting "villain", though the other villains were stock.  The plot was twisty and fairly involving, though there were a few holes.  (For instance, Ruth McDonald shows up dead at one point, then shows up alive later.  This isn't a continuity mistake, and Schmitz implies an explanation, but doesn't really nail it down well.)   Several of the twists were pretty neat, especially the one involving Alan's marriage. 

The problems with the ending are at least threefold, as I see it.  One problem is endemic to "psi" stories: the powers of the participants in psi battles often seem to vary conveniently depending on plot needs, and "The Ties of Earth" has some such power variance.  Another problem is that a couple of the very last twists, intended to be really wrenching, aren't set up quite fairly.  In particular, Alan's childhood turns out to be important, but issues with his childhood, such as that he was an orphan, aren't even mentioned until right towards the end.  A third problem may be partly due to my desires for the story direction, as opposed to the author's intentions, but I was very disappointed when Jean, as a character, was basically just discarded before the climax.  Schmitz didn't want to deal with Alan and Jean resolving their relationship, apparently, especially with Alan's difficulties dealing with his newfound "New Mind" status.  Understandable, perhaps, but disappointing, and structurally off.  And, finally, the gooey mystical Old Mind/New Mind stuff, especially in its characterization as of the final twist, just doesn't work for me. (It is very reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt, actually.)

One possibility to account for at least some of the problems is that Galaxy's editor, H. L. Gold, may have butchered the story, as he did so often to other writers.  If so, that's a darn shame, and as far as I know, there is no original manuscript available.  (Maybe it's still up in that mysterious attic with the Karres Venture manuscript.)  I suspect this story is less likely than most to eventually get reprinted.

Amazing, December 1961

Schmitz's "The Star Hyacinths" is a part of his main sequence of stories, about a future Galactic civilization called the Hub. In Eric Flint's set of books collecting his complete works for Baen, it was included in the volume called Telzey Amberdon for convenience' sake: it does not feature Telzey, but one of the main characters, Wellan Dasinger, appears in some of the Telzey stories. This is fairly minor work (perhaps that's why it appeared in Amazing and not Analog). Six years prior to the main action, Dosey Asteroids were robbed of a shipment of extremely valuable Star Hyacinths. Wellan Dasinger is on a mission with a certain Dr. Egavine -- who turns out to be a criminal. As do the the crew of the ship they are taking, except for the attractive and competent pilot, Miss Duomart Mines. No surprise -- they're looking for the missing Star Hyacinths. And as it happens, so is Wellan, in is role as insurance investigator. They have to negotiate hypno sprays and machine that broadcasts fear, as well as a survivor of the crash of the spaceship that had the stolen gems. None of it quite convinced me, either economically or as to plot. And for that matter Duomart is less fun as a heroine than either Telzey or Trigger. Schmitz was usually at least kind of fun reading -- and that's the case here -- but this ranks fairly low on any list of his Hub stories.

Amazing, November 1962

Schmitz's "Left Hand, Right Hand" is pleasant and fairly ordinary SF, with a familiar plot. Troy Gordon is a member of an Earth expedition researching the newly discovered planet Cassa. He has recovered his barely alive compadre Jerry Goodman, a pilot, and his keeping him hidden? Why? It seems the Earth expedition has been overrun by penguin-like aliens, the Tareeg, and to his disgust the rest of the expedition, the scientists, have been cooperating with the Tareeg, after a coujple of them were tortured to death. Troy wants Jerry to help him escape and return to Earth with the news -- especially as the Tareegs, water creatures, are preparing to crash comets into Cassa to turn it to a water planet. But Jerry must recover first, and Troy must keep him a secret from both the Tareegs and the quisling scientists. It all culminates in a twist ... and all this is nicely done, but routine.

Analog, February 1966

"The Searcher" is a Hub story from Schmitz, but it does not feature either of his most famous heroines, Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee. Instead the heroine is Danestar Gems, from the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency. Danestar is an expert in miniature gadgetry. Unfortunately, this is all we really get to know of her, besides that she is "a long-waisted, lithe, beautiful girl". That's a weakness in the story -- Danestar is really a cipher, unlike Telzey and Trigger, who do acquire real characters over there multiple appearances. The other weakness is not uncommon to Schmitz's stories -- the resolution depends to too great an extent on basically luck, or rather the unusual powers depicted taking on whatever aspect the plot requires.

The story is about an energy creature from a dust cloud called the Pit which has come to Mezmiali, a planet just two light years from the edge of the cloud. The creature is in search of an alien instrument it needs. As it happens, Danestar and her partner are investigating a smuggling group that just happens to be trying to smuggle that particular instrument to private buyers. The energy creature can simply absorb humans, unless they are Danestar and her partner, in which case there will only be close calls. The story begins as a detective story about Danestar foiling the smugglers, but the last half or so is a chase between her and her partner and the energy creature, until she magically figures out how to zap it.

I thought it one of Schmitz's weaker pieces, though others seem to like it a lot.

The Eternal Frontiers (Putnam, 1973)

The only James Schmitz novel I hadn't read was his last, The Eternal Frontiers, from 1973.  This short book (about 42000 words) is not set in his usual "Hub" universe.  Instead, humans, fairly far in the future, are divided into a couple of major groups, and some much smaller groups.  The two major power centers are the Star Union, mostly space dwellers, and the Galestrals, who are descended from the colonists of a very hostile planet, and thus are very competent fighters and planet workers.  The Star Union is further subdivided into a group of people who are fully developed for zero gravity, and who can't tolerate planetary gravities (the Swimmers), and a group who live in habitats where gravity is still used (the Walkers).

The novel is set on a new planet, remote from human space, which has a lot of valuable heavy metals.  The Walkers wish to mine the metals conventionally, which would give them a political advantage, and the Swimmers want to do it from "domes" (gravity controlled) with more automation.  This would be more expensive, but the Swimmers believe it would be safer.  I didn't quite figure out where the Galestrals really fit.  At any rate, funny things start happening, and it begins to look like someone, a rogue Galestral or a rogue Swimmer, perhaps, is trying to sabotage things so that it looks too dangerous for Walkers to mine the planet.  People start being killed, by a violent, elusive, beast.  Ghosts start showing up.  Other evidences of sabotage are uncovered.  The eventual resolution is a twist, and not quite fair in some ways.  It's far from Schmitz at his best.  The characters are pretty much ciphers.  (He does feature a couple of his usual spunky, competent, women.) The book really reads like a sketch of a novel.  A revised, longer, version, beefing up the interpersonal relationships and characterization, and setting up the solution to the novel a bit more fairly, might have been pretty good. Some of the ideas are in fact kind of neat.  I almost wonder if Schmitz ran out of energy: he retired from writing the year after this was published, maybe he just didn't want to put the work into the book that it needed.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Old Bestseller Review: The Graftons, by Archibald Marshall

Old Besteller: The Graftons, by Archibald Marshall

a review by Rich Horton

Archibald Marshall was the penname used by Arthur Hammond Marshall (1866-1934), a British journalist and novelist. He seems to have written primarily realistic novels of British contemporary life, set prior to the first World War. I was to an extent reminded of some novels my mother used to read, by "Miss Read" (though those, I believe, were set later) -- contemporaries compared him to Trollope, which seems a huge stretch to me, though I suppose he may have aspired to that status. He seems to have been fairly popular, especially (says Wikipedia) among American readers, though he was not so successful as to show up on the Publishers' Weekly lists of the top ten bestselling novels of the year. He wrote at least one SF novel, Upsidonia, from 1916.

The Graftons is from 1918, or so the copyright says. My edition, possibly an American first, is dated 1919 on the title page. It's published by Dodd, Mead. There is an introduction (dated March 1918) by the author, which states that it "deals with the same characters as Abington Abbey". Abington Abbey was an earlier novel (though Wikipedia curiously dates it to 1919.) Marshall refers to criticism of that novel (and futher criticism presumed to follow of The Graftons) for not dealing with the impact of the War, and he demurs that he cannot deal with the effects on society of the War until it is concluded, so he has set his novels in the decade or so prior to the War. He admits that his characters doubtless face a potentially tragic future, and that at least one of the young men in the book will likely have died.

The Graftons are a family from the City now occupying Abington Abbey. The father is George, a widower, and he has three daughters (Caroline, Beatrix, and Barbara), and one son, also called George. As the novel opens, the Rector of Surley, a local church, is dying, and the question is who should succeed him? The main candidates are the Rector's son, who is perhaps too inexperienced, but well liked; and the rather pompous and annoying Vicar of Abington, A. Salisbury Mercer. The gift of the living of Abington is in George Grafton's hands, and so there's a problem -- the Grafton's (and most everyone else) cordially dislike Mercer, but they don't think they should foist him on Surley either ... So this all seems to be a reason people might compare Marshall to Trollope. But this whole issue is quickly resolved, in a generally satisfying fashion (and these chapters have some nice comic elements.)

The rest of the book primarily resolves around the love affairs of Caroline and Beatrix. Beatrix is the more worldly of the two older girls, and we soon gather she had thought herself in love previously with a man who turned out to be rather a cad. (I assume this was dealt with in Abington Abbey.) There is a man named Dick Mansergh, a Navy man, who is clearly besotted with her, and he's of the right class and has the right money. But does she love him? As for Caroline, she is a country girl at heart, and she falls for Maurice Bradby, who is apprenticed to George Grafton's property agent. As such Bradby is distinctly of a lower class than the Graftons, so their relationship will raise questions. 

Of course all is resolved pleasantly -- it is that sort of novel. There is even the possibility of a remarriage for George Grafton, to a pretty (and rather rich) local widow, some years younger than him. I thought this subplot resolved in a clumsy and annoying fashion, actually.

It's a very pastoral book, quietly preachy in a classic "Little England" fashion, very much plumping for the virtues of English country life, and of the class system, etc. The writing is fine, the characters are, well, types, and somewhat idealized types, but not poorly portrayed. It seems in the end just of the sort of book to have been popular in its time, and to have become completely out of fashion not long after.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Steven Popkes

Today is Steven Popkes' birthday. He's been publishing strong short fiction (and a couple of novels) since the early '80s, never making a huge splash, as common for writers who don't publish a lot of novels. But he's really a fine writer. Here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction in my Locus column:

Locus, December 2002

Steven Popkes, like Ray Aldridge, is a writer who made a mild splash in the field then seemed to disappear for a while, and who has returned recently. He gives us "Winters are Hard" (Sci Fiction, November), set in a near future where humans can be engineered to adopt various animal characteristics. His main character is a journalist who tries to understand the motivations driving one such man, who has become part wolf, and who lives on an isolated reservation with a wolf pack.

Locus, January 2003

Last month I noted the appearance in the December F&SF of the first story in several years from Ray Aldridge. The January 2003 issue of Asimov's features two stories by fine writers who took longish sabbaticals from the field. Steven Popkes, after an absence of some years, has appeared in F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, and Sci Fiction in the last year or two, and in this issue he returns to Asimov's with a fine novella, "The Ice". Phil Berger is a high-school hockey player contemplating scholarships from a couple of small colleges. All this changes when a reporter reveals that Phil is actually the clone of Gordie Howe (one of the greatest hockey players of all time). Suddenly interest in Phil's hockey playing mushrooms, as does the pressure on him. Popkes follows Phil's life over some decades, as he abandons hockey, deals with some personal issues, puts his life in order, meets a fellow clone whose development didn't go quite as well, and comes to term with what his "family" really is. The story is an effective extended essay on identity, and on the true wellsprings of a person's "self". It's highly readable, moving, well-presented and thematically honest. It does show signs of excessive authorial manipulation in a couple places, and the rationale for the original cloning is not convincing, but overall I quite liked it.

Locus, February 2003

The February Realms of Fantasy opens with two rather long stories (for them), and both are quite good. ... Steven Popkes's "Stegosaurus Boy" is perhaps unavoidably a bit over-earnest dealing with its subject matter, race relations in Alabama in 1964, but the main character, a boy fascinated by dinosaurs who learns a very odd secret about himself, is well-portrayed and the central secret is clever and original.

Locus, January 2004

Steven Popkes returns in the January Asimov's with "This Old Man", a fine post-holocaust story. The holocaust in this case was a plague that made almost everyone incapable of reading. Lemuel is an orphan, and the bodyguard of the old man of the title, a very old man indeed, and perhaps the only person left who can read. He leads a settlement in Missouri. This story follows the old man and Lemuel as they visit another settlement and try to unravel the mystery of the "Kingdom City Man", a rapist and murderer who has so far eluded capture. Lemuel's personal history, and some secrets of the old man's, also come into play. It's an absorbing and ultimately wrenching story.

Locus, July 2006

Quite different in tone is “Holding Pattern” by Steven Popkes (F&SF, July), in which a Guatemalan tyrant (modeled, it would seem, on Saddam) has been deposed: but the “real” tyrant cannot be identified among his various doubles – especially as each double has been imprinted with the memories of the original. It’s an effective meditation on guilt and punishment and the sources of personality.

Locus, August 2009

Steven Popkes treats again the newly fashionable idea of genetically restored Neanderthals in “Two Boys” (Asimov's, August). Two time tracks follow one of the earliest “new” Neanderthals and one of his grandchildren, both in different ways dealing with the attitudes of other (Homo Sapiens) children. Neanderthals turn out to be brilliant negotiators, and to have strange senses of humor. And to understand something about their species history, and that of Homo Sapiens … Though I don’t quite buy some of the assumptions underlying the story, the extrapolations Popkes makes from these assumptions – such as the real reason humans outcompeted Neanderthals – are original and striking.

Locus, May 2010

Steven Popkes’s “Jackie’s-Boy” (Asimov's, April-May) is also nice but imperfect. It’s set a few decades in the future, after a series of plagues, engineered and otherwise, have all but wiped out humanity. The title character is a boy who meets an elephant at the St. Louis zoo – an uplifted elephant, we soon gather. The two eventually head south in search of more elephants. It’s an enjoyable read, and Jackie (the elephant) has a bitter side to her character that really works. But I was never convinced by the boy’s character – neither his voice nor his learning, and for that matter Jackie’s knowledge and motivations don’t quite hang together either.

Popkes is present as well in the May-June F&SF, with an altogether darker story, “The Crocodiles”. This is the second Nazi zombie story I’ve read recently, though the other one was a light-hearted romp compared to this. It’s told in first person by a German engineer who agrees to work on the “Tote Manner” project to avoid being sent to the front. He tells, with some near glee, of the efforts they go through to weaponize this disease, using, of course, the ready supply of subjects from Buchenwald, then Auschwitz, for their trials. His deadpan lack of morality – pure Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” – is almost funny, though the end results are anything but.

Locus, December 2012

At Asimov's for December the longest story is “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected”, by Steven Popkes. Jacob is a once successful rock star who is suddenly contacted by his ex-lover, Rosie. She wants him to serve as a song doctor – but not for a human, rather for a “divaloid”, a simulation of a teenaged pop star. Rosie is helping to program the divaloid, and she wants to understand how, or if, one can program creativity. Naturally the ultimate question is what the divaloid wants, or if the divaloid can “want” anything. The magic Jacob performs doesn't necessarily convince me, but the interaction of the main characters – Jacob, Rosie, and Dot (the divaloid) – does convince. A moving and thoughtful story.

The November-December F&SF has another very good Steven Popkes story, “Breathe”, about a family of vampires of a sort – they can steal “health” from other people. The story contrasts two brothers – one who rejects his “gift” and another who has benefited greatly from it – as their father dies. (Perhaps too slowly.) A sharp moral exercise.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Birthday Review: The Privilege of the Sword (and short stories), by Ellen Kushner

Today is Ellen Kushner's birthday. In her honor, then, here's a review of her lovely novel The Privilege of the Sword, plus a few related short stories.

Review of The Privilege of the Sword (originally published in Fantasy Magazine)

This is one of those books that I opened and started reading just to get its flavor, and it rudely shoved aside the other books I was planning to get to first. It is a delight throughout, supremely witty, romantic, adventurous. The setting is an unnamed country that resembles Regency England to some extent. The action occurs some 20 years following the classic Swordspoint, and a few decades prior to Ellen Kushner’s collaboration with her partner Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings. Like Swordspoint it is a “fantasy without magic”, though magic explicitly returns in The Fall of the Kings. Katherine Talbert is the 15 year old niece of Alec Campion, one of the heroes of Swordspoint, who is now the notorious Mad Duke Tremontaine. The Duke summons her to the city with the intention of making her a swordswoman. She had expected a more conventional future, but ends up taking very well to the sword, especially after instruction from the other hero of Swordspoint, the legendary Richard St. Vier, now living alone in the country. Katherine has many more experiences in the city, things like visiting a brothel, seeing a play, spying with the Duke’s protégé Marcus, and more conventional entertainments such as balls. She also becomes enmeshed, without the Duke’s knowledge, in a challenge against the Duke’s bitter enemy, Lord Ferris, a scheming politician and abuser of women, who has stained the honor of one of Katherine’s more typical female friends. Katherine is a delightful heroine, and the Mad Duke is a truly wonderful character. The dialogue is fast-paced and sharp. The minor characters are also excellent (my favorite is the Duke’s mathematician friend the Ugly Girl). The plot is effective, if a bit loose-limbed at times. Over all, I loved it – a thoroughgoing pleasure.

Locus, April 2009

The first of the new bimonthly issuesof F&SF is April-May. Ellen Kushner offers a prequel to her novel Swordspoint: “’A Wild and Wicked Youth’” tells of Richard St. Vier growing up the son of a brilliant woman who never married his father, and so lives on the charity of a local Lord. Richard is friends with the nobleman’s son, but they have different interests – differences that are magnified when an encounter with a faded swordsman gives Richard the chance to learn his real talent … and magnified further, of course, when Crispin comes into his inheritance.

Locus, December 2010

And finally I’ll give a brief nod to a new Ellen Kushner short story about Alec Campion (of Swordspoint and its sequels), "The Man With the Knives". It’s available as a chapbook from Temporary Culture, in a truly lovely package with Thomas Canty illustrations. The story is fine work, about a solitary woman, a healer, who takes in a desperate mourning man, a man with a collection of knives – knives that, it turns out, have healing uses. Worth reading on its own, or as a pendant to the wonderful books its related to, or simply to enjoy the lovely bookmaking behind the chapbook.

Review of Urban Fantasy (Locus, August 2011)

A different kind of Urban Fantasy is set in imaginary cities, and some of the best of this the past few decades has been Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and its sequels (one written with Delia Sherman). So it is a delight to see a very early look at Richard St. Vier and Alec Campion, from a different point of view, in “The Duke of Riverside”, which is a Riverside dweller’s view of Alec’s arrival, on the point of despair, in that dangerous part of town.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Old Besteller: The Marquis and Pamela, by Edward H. Cooper

Old Besteller: The Marquis and Pamela, by Edward H. Cooper

a review by Rich Horton

Edward H. Cooper is one of the more obscure novelists I've encountered in my reading of early 20th Century popular fiction. He was born in Newcastle under Lyme (not to be confused with Newcastle upon Tyne, the much more famous and larger city) in 1867, was crippled from birth, and died in 1910. He went to Oxford and became a journalist. He also wrote novels such as Richard Escott, Resolved to be Rich, and the book at hand, The Marquis and Pamela. He seems essentially fully forgotten nowadays (with reason, based on this novel, anyway,) and I doubt this book sold well enough to be called a bestseller.

My copy seems to be a first American edition, in poor condition, from Duffield and Company in 1908. (The English edition was from Chatto and Windus.) It's illustrated nicely enough, by Julia Roper. It's signed in pencil by, I think, V. Siebert Romberg.

I bought it at an antique store and read it on a lark, expecting a light romance. And indeed, it opens in this fashion, at a party among London's racing and gambling set. (Actually, the people involved, and the timeframe, seem very similar to the miliue of Shaw's "Pygmalion" (and of course, of My Fair Lady.)) The Marquis of Seaford is an older man, very well-respected as a good horseman, and a man who will always pay his debts. Pamela is a 20-something woman, very beautiful, with some money of her own, and ready to find a man to marry. Two men are the leading contenders -- a wealthy but dull scholar, Sir Norman Stanier; and a dissipated and financially unstable younger man, Lord Whitmore. Pamela doesn't really seem to much like Stanier, but he does have money; and Whitmore is more attractive, but something of a mess.

The races at Ascot are coming up soon, and we gather that Lord Seaford's horse is a heavy favorite. He will surely back his horse with a large bet. And then we find that there is a plan to fix the race, so that Lord Whitmore's horse wins instead. Seaford will be nearly ruined.

More details come out -- Seaford has been helping Lord Whitmore financially for some time, but Whitmore has betrayed him in many ways. Whitmore has had several mistresses, and has had children with them, and his latest mistress is pressing him for money to support her and her two babies after she has been discarded. Seaford is warned off betting on his horse by a "gypsy" ...

We come to a crisis. To no reader's surprise, it becomes clear that the Marquis of Seaford is in love with Pamela, but thinks he's too old for her. (A reasonable thought -- he's 55.) And Pamela seems to return his affection. And the more we learn about Whitmore, we realize he's an out and out rotter. What will happen? Will Seaford save himself by listening to the gypsy? Will their set come to their senses and banish Whitmore from public life for his many sins? And what about Sir Norman Stanier, who seems a basically good man?

Spoilers to follow, not that it matters over much ...

The author heavily intervenes at this point. He tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, that Lord Seaford is a horrible person. (And he shows his neglect of the tenants at his estate, to emphasize the point.) He also tells us that Pamela is a horrible person (she's selfish, and she's cruelly leading Whitmore and Stanier on, and she really has no redeeming qualities save her beauty.) OK, so everybody is awful? What to do ...

Seaford bets on his horse as planned, and the scheme to fix the race goes through, and he is almost ruined. (I wondered how such a transparent and obvious race-fixing went unpunished.) Whitmore, still under great financial pressure, presses Pamela to marry him. But his mistress has revealed Whitmore's sins to Pamela, and she rejects him. Whitmore commits suicide. Pamela, to her shock, is blamed by society, and cast to the margins. She is "rescued" by the odious man who (it turns out) is behind the race-fixing scheme, and they plan to get married, though she finds him repulsive.

Then, somehow, at the end, the Marquis comes to his senses (barely) and realizes he still loves Pamela -- though he hates her for causing distress to his friend Whitmore (there are homoerotic hints in the description of the Seaford/Whitmore relationship, though I think they were unintended.) So the Marquis spikes the marriage plans, and the book ends with Pamela and Seaford in a romantic clinch ...

It's just such a crudely manipulative mess! Some of it could have worked with a more skillful writer (and it should be said that Cooper's prose and imagery are sometimes well-handled -- but not his characterization!) The idea that Pamela and the Marquis and indeed their whole set are dreadful people is actually quite believable, but isn't really sold by the bulk of the book. And questions remain -- What about Seaford's tenants? And if he was ruined by his big bet on his horse, can he still afford to marry Pamela? And ... And ... (I haven't mentioned the saintly Biddy and her upstanding intended clergyman husband, who try and fail to set Seaford straight and to save Whitmore's life ... that's another detail that just seems forced in.)

Sometimes, indeed, popular fiction of the past is forgotten for very good reasons!