Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of L. Sprague de Camp

For the third straight day I can commemorate the birth of a major Golden Age SF writer (or just post Golden Age, I suppose, in the case of Poul Anderson.) Two days ago it was Anderson, yesterday Frederik Pohl, and today L. Sprague de Camp. All three were named Grand Masters by the SFWA. Here then is a shorter than usual compendium of things I've written about L. Sprague de Camp's short fiction, in this case all from the 1950s.

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1951

(Cover by Bob Pepper)
But first, the best known writer and best known story in this issue, L. Sprague de Camp's "The Continent Makers". It's listed by the magazine as a "Complete Novel", which was often a gross exaggeration in pulps of this day, but it should be said that some of the pulps, the Standard Group notable among them, really did publish full length novels in single issues, up to 60,000 words. "The Continent Makers" is a bit shy of the Hugo and Nebula definition of "Novel" (40,000 words), but it's plenty long enough that it might have been published alone in book form, or as an Ace Double half. However, it was instead chosen as the title story of a collection of Viagens Interplanetarias stories first published in 1953, and perhaps for that reason, it's never seemed to me to get as much notice as some de Camp's other work in that series.

Lyon Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) was one of the great SF writers of the "Modern Science Fiction" period -- that is, of John Campbell's birthing, as it were. He was named a Grand Master in 1979. De Camp actually first appeared in Astounding in September 1937, the last issue before Campbell took over, but he quickly became popular working for Campbell, in both Astounding and Unknown, often in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt. His most famous collaborations with Pratt were the Harold Shea "Incomplete Enchanter" stories, and in fact the first two of those are among this years Retro-Hugo nominees. De Camp wrote several extended series -- the Shea stories, the Gavagan's Bar tales, and many more, but his most extended and arguably most popular series is a future history called Viagens Interplanetarias, set in a future dominated by the Brazilians, where Earth has ventured to a number of nearby star systems using only slower than light travel. De Camp wrote in this series to the very end of his career: his second to last novel, The Venom Trees of Sunga (1992) is a Viagens Interplanetarias story.

Many of his VI stories concerned the planet Krishna. The natives are egg-laying and have antennae, but otherwise are remarkably human appearing and in fact most of the stories concern at some level sexual attraction between humans and Krishnans. Krishna's technology is a couple of centuries behind Earth's, and politically they are divided into a variety of often warring states with differing political philosophies -- a lot like Earth, that is, except that by the time of de Camp's stories there is a fairly strong world government.

"The Continent Makers" is sort of a Krishna story, in that two of the main characters are from Krishna, but they are visiting Earth. They are Jeru-Bhetiru and her fiance, Varnipaz bad-Savarum, who is studying Earth law in order to help him in his role as essentially Attorney General for a small nation on Krishna. The main human character is physicist Gordon Graham, who is asked to escort Jeru-Bhetiru, or "Betty", around town while her fiance is away. Graham, of course, falls for the beautiful and habitually underdressed (by Earth standards) Betty immediately, and she seems to return the attraction, which is embarrassing when Varnipaz turns up. All is fine, though, as the Krishnans explain that marriage is purely a practical arrangement, having nothing to do with love, and anyway humans and Krishnans aren't interfertile so where's the harm?

This is really side issue to the main action, which begins more or less immediately with an attack on Graham. He and an unexpected ally, a World Federation cop, fight off the attack and Graham soon learns that the whole things has to do with a plot involving a project Graham has been assisting. There is a plan to set off some bombs under the ocean, causing a release of sufficient magma to form a new continent. This will help with the population on Earth (I shudder to think of the ecological consequences if such a thing could actually be done!), but it seems that the real estate laws (as Varnipaz is happy to explain) mean that the timing of the formation of the new continent is critical. A couple of alien races and some greedy humans have plans to profit by starting the process early. Graham and the cop, along with the brave Krishnans, run around for awhile figuring all this out, then go sailing off to an island at the center of the planned new continent, to foil the bad guys. It's all a bit strained, but that's not the point. It's a pretty fun romp most of the way, with lots of off the cuff grace notes like the "Churchillian Society", which attempts to prove that George Bernard Shaw could not possibly have written the plays attributed to him -- the real author must have been Winston Churchill.

Universe, December 1953

There are nine stories, two of them novelettes. First up is L. Sprague de Camp's "The Hungry Hercynian" (9500 words), the second of four stories he published about Gezun, a sort of comic version of Conan. This story is about a beautiful slave girl who is desired by three individuals (or maybe four): Lord Noish, who has promised her to the title Hercynian sorcerer in payment for help in eliminating a political rival, Derezong, an aging sorcerer who simply wants a biddable concubine, and of course Gezun (the Gadairan), a powerful but perhaps not exactly brilliant young man. Derezong buys her fair and square, but Gezun chivalrously frees her -- only to find that she might not value freedom and his vigorous young charms as much as she enjoys Derezong's less urgent desires and his comfortable home. Meanwhile Noish has a more sinister fate planned. It's pleasant light comedy, nothing special.

Future #28

The last story is a long short story, "Cornzan the Mighty" by L. Sprague de Camp, at 7500 words something that would surely have been labeled a novelette in most of Lowndes' publications. It's a humorous and cynical take on TV production. In this story the actors take a drug that makes them susceptible to suggestion, and they are imprinted to believe that they are really their characters. The "hero" is a writer, in love with the leading lady, who gets in trouble when an artificially enhanced snake threatens to kill some of the production crew after the lead actor mistakenly gets imprinted with Macbeth instead of the Tarzan-like character he's supposed to be. Hilarity ensues, followed by a cynical ending. Minor stuff, but well enough done -- de Camp at less than middle range, but still professional.

Galaxy, July 1955

The other novelet is L. Sprague de Camp's "Property of Venus" (7000 words), a fairly silly but mildly amusing story about a trio of avid gardeners who unwisely buy some seeds smuggled in from Venus. Of course, the Venerian plants have some unexpected properties. Again, minor.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Centenary Review: Short fiction of Frederik Pohl

Today is the centenary of Frederik Pohl's birth. We had a panel in his honor at WindyCon this year, particularly appropriate as Fred was a long-time Chicagoan. He is one of the oldest SF personages I've met -- I shared a panel with him at a Windycon in 2012 perhaps(?), not too long before he died (in 2013, just shy of his 94th birthday.) (The only SF people born before Pohl that I met were David Kyle (very briefly indeed, just a handshake at Chicon in 2012), and Bob Tucker (I was "smoothed" by him at ConQuesT sometime in the late '90s.)) In this honor, then, here's a compendium of things I've written about his short fiction (and one Analog serial) over the years.

Beyond, July 1954

The novella in the July issue is "No More Stars", by "Charles Satterfield" -- a name Frederik Pohl used quite often as a pseudonym, though this time, its first use, it's a Pohl/Lester Del Rey story. It's about a man snatched from death into a world in which some sort of Ptolemaic magic/astrology is true, and an attempt to save the literal firmament from destruction. Not bad, kind of original.

Galaxy, July 1955

The stories include installment 2 of the notorious contest-winning serial "Preferred Risk", by Edson McCann. McCann, of course, was actually Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey, who whipped out the novel on short order when Gold couldn't find a worthwhile novel by an unpublished writer to win Galaxy's first novel contest. This installment is about 14,000 words -- I have no other comment as I have never read the story.

The lead novelet is also by Pohl, "The Mapmakers" (12,000 words). Navigating hyperspace is very difficult, and can only be accomplished by especially trained eidetic memories called Celestial Atlases. The Terra II, thus, is in big trouble when a meteor kills their Atlas, and blinds another officer. They seem likely to be stranded thousands of light years from Earth -- unless they can find another way to navigate. Pretty minor Pohl, it must be said.

Galaxy, July 1958

The short stories are by "Paul Flehr", L. J. Stecher, Jr., and Arthur Sellings. "Flehr" is of course a pseudonym for Frederik Pohl. I first read "We Never Mention Aunt Nora" in Pohl's "Best of" collection back in the mid-70s, so the "Flehr" name never fooled me. I'm not sure why he used this pseudonym when he did -- for about 5 stories in 1958 and 1959. Earlier he had used "Charles Satterfield" and "James MacCreigh". (Though the Satterfield name was used at least once for a collaboration with Lester Del Rey (other times for solo stories). The MacCreigh name was used for collaborations with Judith Merril and with Isaac Asimov, but in those cases the story was credited to "James MacCreigh and collaborator".)

At any rate, I really like "We Never Mention Aunt Nora", a brief (3400 words) smart SF horror tale. Aunt Nora is the disreputable relative of an bachelor and his sister -- disreputable because she lost her virtue to a man who later disappeared. The sister falls suddenly in love with a handsome and rich young man, and her brother's objections to the sudden marriage are overcome by wealth and a nice prenup. The ending and the corresponding revelation of Aunt Nora's past are predictable, perhaps, but nicely sprung on the reader.

Galaxy, June 1959

The cover story, as mentioned, is by Frederik Pohl. "Whatever Counts" is a novella of about 22,500 words, and so listed on the TOC. (I think Galaxy was  one of the first SF magazines, if not the first, to use "Novella" as a length category.) A human ship has made it to the planet Aleph Four, with 58 people ready to colonize. But the grey, biped but rhino-like, aliens called Gormen have got their first. The Gormen refuse to communicate or negotiate with humans, and they are preternaturally fast and can control their own ships manually, while humans need computer help. The humans are imprisoned and subjected to experimentation, and their ship is destroyed. The ship's psychiatrist appears to be helping the aliens, leading to general hostility, even from pretty young Rae Wensley, who had previously been one of the few people who liked the man. The situation seems hopeless, but, it turns out, the psychiatrist had a plan all along. I don't think this is one of Pohl's better efforts -- the solution, though clever, is not really plausible, and the characters don't really come into focus.

If, November 1964

It also had one of Frederik Pohl's most sentimental stories, but a pretty effective one: "Father of the Stars", about a man who spent his life and fortune supporting a monumental effort to send Slower Than Light colonizing ships to likely stars, only to see this effort rendered obsolete by the invention of FTL. 

Odyssey, Spring 1976

Pohl's "The Prisoner of New York Island" is a rather obscure piece from him -- I can't find any evidence that it has ever been republished. (And a quick glance at The Years of the City indicates that it wasn't incorporated into that either.) Does anyone know any more about it? The story itself is OK, not great. It's about a couple from a group marriage in Tucson who come to visit the rather decayed New York, sometime in the middle of the 21st Century. Their mission is to find the body of their fiance, who died in an accident. To bury him? Nah, for genetic material.

Cosmos, May 1977

Pohl's "Rem the Rememberer" is a preachy story about a boy who may live in a utopian future and dream of a dystopian alternative, or vice-versa.

Analog, October/November/December 1997

(Cover by Bob Eggleton)
O, Pioneer! by Frederik Pohl is the serial from these three issues.  A computer hacker and his ex-whore lover for some reason decide to emigrate (WHY???) to Tupelo, the Peace Planet, where 5 alien races and humans are trying to build a peaceful society.  The hacker is elected mayor (WHY???), and finds some unpleasant things going on beneath the surface.  Pohl is a very easy writer for me to read: his ironic style keeps me interested throughout, but this seems, well, sort of half thought through, just thrown off in a few days for kicks. The characters are rather unconvincing, the villains are morons, the tech and the planet are not blatantly absurd but don't feel fully imagined either. I must say, it was still fun to read: a lot of that is just Pohl, though, one of those guys who can make laundry lists readable: pretty minor Pohl, though, all in all.  I will add that it's possible that this serialized edition is abridged, and that some of the holes might be patched over in a longer version.

Locus, October 2005

This is in many ways an aging field, and the September Asimov’s provides some evidence of that by featuring stories by two writers in their 80s. But both are close to the top of their form. Frederik Pohl’s “Generations” is a very cynical but also SFnally involving post-9/11 story, following several linked people from 2001 to a few decades in the future. At one level it is a depressing story of political decay, as the West becomes enmeshed in an ongoing war against Islam, with a concomitant decay of civil rights in the U. S. But there is another intriguing aspect, as a discovery about the nature of the universe pulls the foundations from under both science and established religions – but the replacement isn’t exactly nice. Solid work.

Short review of Turn Left at Thursday

(Cover by Richard Powers)
I like to read old short science fiction collections. This is one of the best ways to fill in knowledge of the field's past. Fred Pohl is a very consistently readable author: Turn Left at Thursday is one of his weaker collections, but still readable throughout. The long bookend stories are a bit odd for Pohl, mainly in that they are very Campbellian in their heroic Men against the Aliens themes. "Mars by Moonlight" concerns a group of prisoners on Mars, who have had all memory of their crimes erased. The twist to the story is obvious, and the whole setup is horribly undermotivated. "I Plinglot, Who You?" is better, about a shape-changing alien who plans to trick the nations of the world to solving the problem of Earth's population by starting a nuclear war. But the humans are smarter and especially more courageous than the aliens. OK stuff, nothing much.  Better are a couple of the shorts, "The Hated" and "The Martian in the Attic", which are neat setups with mordant endings.  The others are lesser stuff.  All very '50s in tone.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Some Lesser Known Poul Anderson Stories

The great Poul Anderson would have been 93 today. I've reviewed several of his Ace Doubles in the past (as one does), so today, in his honor, I thought I'd go back and resurrect some stuff I wrote about some of his more obscure stories, either for Black Gate or in my blog. There are two (also fairly little-known) novels included too, both serialized in Cele Goldsmith's magazines, Amazing and Fantastic. One review is the only one I got to do of him for Locus, one of his last stories, published three years after his death.

Retro Review of Super Science Stories, November 1950

One of the better issues of Super Science Stories is probably the November 1950 issue. The lead novel is a rather well-known Poul Anderson story from this his most pulpy period: "Flight to Forever". For all its occasional silliness, the story impressed T. E. Dikty and Everett Bleiler enough that it was included in their first "Year's Best" collection of short novels: Year's Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952. (1952 is the year of publication of the book: the stories are mostly from 1951, with only "Flight to Forever" from 1950.) It's right about 20,000 words long.  It tells of Martin Saunders, who is part of a team that develops a time machine. He is sent forward in time, hoping to return and tell what he found. But the machine, he finds, cannot go back in time. He ends up going forward, farther and farther. He eventually falls in love with a lusty empress of a star federation far in the future, and helps her fight off her enemies. This despite that he still remembers his beloved Eve at home. Finally, in an ending that anticipates both James Blish's The Triumph of Time and Anderson's own Tau Zero, he goes so far into the future that he cycles back to the beginning of time, and he manages to "time" things so that he does indeed return to Eve. I read this as a teenager and perceived the preposterousness of most of it even then but I still liked it a great deal. It doesn't hold up fully to adult reading but it was still fairly fun to reread.

Retro Review of Worlds Beyond, February 1951

"The Acolytes" is one of a few stories Poul Anderson published set on Nerthus, a new colony planet. (Nerthus is mentioned in passing in Virgin Planet, so it presumably is set in that future.) ("The Green Thumb" is another, featuring the same character (Wilson Pete -- surnames come first in this world), and it was orphaned when Worlds Beyond ceased publication, only appearing a couple years later in Science Fiction Quarterly.). Wilson Pete is a boy staying with his Uncle, an old space hand, on his uncle's farm on Nerthus. Nerthus seems to be an idyllic world, but what are the little animals that seem to be trying to lure him into the woods? And what about those stories of other children who have disappeared? There is, of course, an ecological answer, and a heroic act by his uncle's alien former "batman". OK stuff, nothing special.

Review of Planet Stories, January and July 1951

Now, what were the stories like [in the first three issues of Planet Stories I ever bought]?  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  There aren't any enduring classics in the three issues I have, mind you.  The best known story is Poul Anderson's "Tiger by the Tail", the first Dominic Flandry stories.  In this piece Flandry subverts the aggressive leadership of a "barbarian" alien group of planets on the outskirts of the empire, by setting the leader's lieutenants against each other, fostering suspicion, etc.  In so doing he earns the love of a noble (and nubile!) alien woman, but of course he must leave her.  It's OK, but it's not Anderson at anything like his best: Flandry has things too easy, the time span is hard to believe, the aliens are profoundly unconvincing.

There are two other Anderson stories in the three issues I got.  Both are fairly pure sword and sorcery, though with nods to being on other planets, to make them "SF".  "The Virgin of Valkarion" is the weaker, in my opinion.  The demise of the "39th Dynasty" of Valkarion is at hand: the old King cannot get a child on his (nubile) young wife, the title character.  The corrupt priesthood is ready to take over as the King dies.  But a scarred barbarian mercenary shows up at the town. The "Virgin", who has disguised herself as a whore and let the barbarian have her services, pushes the Barbarian to hack his way to the throne, over the bodies of the priests, thus fulfilling an obscure prophecy.  Competent, in its way, but not original at all, and without any real twists. The other is "Witch of the Demon Seas".  Since it was printed in the same issue as "Tiger by the Tail", it appeared under a pseudonym, A. A. Craig.  It's about a pirate who is captured by the leader of a more civilized empire on another planet (which seems to be a typical Mediterranean-based Sword and Sorcery Ancient Earth setting).  In lieu of death, the pirate is freed by an old sorcerer and his granddaughter, the title witch, to lead them to the "Demon Seas", where the alien Xanthi fish-people terrorize humans.  The sorcerer claims to wish to gain their help in overthrowing the empire. Naturally, on the boat leading to the Xanthi area, the pirate falls in love with the nubile witch.  But when they get there, there is lots of fighting, and some double-crossing, and  decently twisty ending. (Though capped off by a pat, unconvincing, excuse to allow the leads to live happily ever after.)  Again, it's nothing of "enduring value", but it's a fun read.

While I was reading the Craig story I thought it was obviously by Anderson. I admit I knew that in advance, so I was looking for hints, but Anderson does have a pretty characteristic style, and I thought it was definitely in evidence in "Witch of the Demon Seas".  But for example A. J. Budrys, in his letter in a later issue, mentions the story and seems to think that Craig is somebody besides Anderson. (Though to be fair, maybe he did know the truth, but didn't feel proper mentioning it in the letter column, or Bixby might even have excised any such mention.)

Retro Review of Space Science Fiction, February 1953

On to the fiction. The February novelette, Poul Anderson's "Security", is set in a future America which has turned militaristic and oppressive after losing World War III. Allen Lancaster is a loyal scientist who gets recruited for a secret Project, so secret that "the left hand of Security doesn't know what the right hand is doing". After several heady months of successful engineering work, leading to success, he returns to his old job, but finds it unsatisfactory. And the fact that his secret Project involved collaboration with official undesirable types like Martians also begins to affect him. Then the Monitors come for him ... Well, the twist ending isn't much of a surprise. This is decent but not great early Anderson. It seems never to have been reprinted since. (I have a list of Anderson stories that as far as I know have not been reprinted. Would folks like to see it -- in particular, I'd be interested in anyone identifying reprints of some of the stories that I have missed.)

Retro Review of Science Fiction Adventures, July 1953

The novelette is "The Nest", by Poul Anderson (9800 words). To my knowledge, this story has only been reprinted once, in Anderson's Tor collection Past Times (1984). For all that, I think it's a pretty decent story. It's set in a citadel, the Nest, maintained by a Norman Duke who has stolen a time machine. The Nest is located back in time, and the privileged residents maintain a decent lifestyle by raiding other times -- for labor in the form of slaves, and for material, and for animals, such as the dinosaur that our hero, Trebuen, uses instead of a horse. Trebuen is a Cro-Magnon. He has not questioned the morals of the setup at all, but one day he rescues a girl slave from an abusive Nazi. Only it turns out it's not a real Nazi -- it's a wannabe, in the form of the Duke's son. And the rescue involved killing the man. So Trebuen is in trouble -- which raises his political consciousness right quick. He sets out to overthrow the Duke, with the help of a few friends, the slave, and a cute time travel trick. The story doesn't need a sequel, but one could have been written -- what to do with the Nest and the time machine after? As far as I know Anderson never returned to the setup though.

Retro Review of Cosmos, September 1953

"The Troublemakers" is a generation ship story. The hero is part of the aristocracy of the ship -- one of the hereditary Astrogators. But as the story opens, he is convicted of a crime he didn't commit, but might have -- rabble-rousing against the unfair treatment of the lower classes. His punishment is reduction in rank to the lower classes -- where he quickly establishes himself as a good worker, begins to advance, becomes involved to some extent with their revolutionary movement, becomes close friends with the guy who beat him up his first day there, etc. etc. But the corrupt Union boss drives him to a third group, the petty bourgeois -- and soon he is in the midst of a real riot perhaps leading to revolution. But what does all this have to do with getting to Alpha Centauri? The resolution is the sort of twist that would have just shocked and thrilled me at age 13, but which was a bit too easy to see coming at age 45. And indeed the story is a bit tendentious. One interesting recent story that seems to me to be commenting on it is Ursula Le Guin's "Paradises Lost". Not by any means Anderson at his best, but readable stuff.

Retro Review of Universe, December 1953

The other novelette is also light comedy: "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound" (9200 words), one of Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson's Hoka stories. I've never been as big a fan of the Hoka stories as many readers, though I think to some extent I burden the entire series with my dislike of the one late novel, Star Prince Charlie, which I think was quite poor. This story is decent enough, though not really great. The Hokas, of course, are teddy bear like aliens who love to imitate fictional models -- in this story, obviously, they are imitating Sherlock Holmes. Much to the distress of a human IBI agent who is tracking down a nasty alien drug runner who has chosen to hide near the Hoka equivalent of the Baskerville mansion.

Retro Review of Science Fiction Stories, 1953

The lead story is Poul Anderson's "Sentiment, Inc." (11200 words). This novelet has only been reprinted once, in the 1962 Ivan Howard anthology The Weird Ones. I'm not always entirely sure why those Anderson stories that he never collected remained such -- sometimes they are quite decent, though not likely absolute top-drawer. This is the case here. Perhaps he grew to object to the politics -- this story includes an offhand light-hearted jab at the Republican Party.

At any rate ... the story concerns a typical Anderson hero of the period -- a brilliant young man with Physics aptitude who sets up as an Engineer -- engineering being (it is implied) a more virtuous and manly pursuit than physics. He falls in love with an actress, stage name Judy Sanders (she "always wanted to live under the name of Sanders" -- a Winnie-the-Pooh reference that Anderson used himself in choosing his pseudonym Winston Sanders). All is bliss until she suddenly throws him over for a rich man who had also been pursuing her. She seems really, puzzlingly, in love with the other man. The hero gets suspicious and soon figures out that the rich man has found a psychologist with a machine that can more or less brainwash people. He does the "make the girl of my dreams fall for me" thing for rich patrons to get money, but it soon transpires that his real goal, apparently quite sincerely held, is to reform the world, to make everybody virtuous. Naturally, that will not do ... The resolution, actually, is rather too rapid and somewhat pro-forma, but the story does raise interesting ideas along the way.

Retro Review of Dynamic, January 1954

"The Chapter Ends" is Anderson in his melancholy mood. It's nominally one of his Psychotechnic League stories, though set very far in the future. Humanity has decided to abandon Earth, because it's politically convenient to cede the Solar System to some methane breathers. So they need to evacuate the few million remaining residents, who have regressed to a pleasant low tech life. But one stubborn man refuses to leave. I thought the motivations, and the characterizations, and especially the overwrought conclusion, were rather forced.

Retro Review of Cosmos, July 1954

The "Feature Story" this time is not the novella, unlike the other three Cosmos issues. Instead it is Poul Anderson's "Teucan", a short novelette at about 7500 words.

"Teucan" is a Coordination Service story. The Coordination Service pieces are sometimes listed with the Psychotechnic League stories. ("The Troublemakers", from the first issue of Cosmos, is a Psychotechnic League story, though not from the central group due to its setting on a generation ship -- however its emphasis on psychological elites molding society is very characteristic of Psychotechnic League stories.) It seems to me a bit controversial as to whether the Coordination Service stories should be considered part of the Psychotechnic League stories. However, it is true that the Winter 1955 issue of Startling Stories, containing the Pyschotechnic League story "The Snows of Ganymede", includes a timeline chart of Pyschotechnic League stories. Along with this there is an explanation, which lists several stories, "already written but not yet published", that also fit the same future history. One of these is "Star Ways" (retitled The Peregrine for the late 70s reissue), which if memory serves is a Coordination Service story. So if you include "Star Ways", you introduce other Coordination Service pieces, including Virgin Planet. (And as Virgin Planet mentions a world named "Nerthus", maybe you can also add "The Green Thumb" and "The Acolytes" -- Sandra Miesel does, at any rate.)

At any rate "Teucan" is really one of those stories that thinly disguises a version of a past Earth society as an alien society. In this case a Terran Trader finds himself marooned on a primitive planet. The very humanoid natives, it turns out, have a society very much like the ancient Aztecs. Complete with human -- well, in this case alien --  sacrifice. The Trader is soon recruited by be "Teucan" of this society -- the high king, basically. He swallows some revulsion at the prospect of officiating over the sacrifices, and enjoys a time of luxury. Unfortunately, he doesn't grasp another eventual responsibility of the Teucan ... I thought this a pretty minor story for Anderson.

Retro Review of Galaxy, February 1956

The Poul Anderson story, "The Corkscrew of Space", turns out to be a rare Anderson story that has not (as far as Contento and the ISFDB can tell me) been reprinted. It's a trifle, though entertaining enough.  A Martian colonist is in despair as Mars' economy seems to be in collapse, largely because of transportation costs.  His friend, a French (nationality significant!) physicist, has developed the concept of an instantaneous transportation system, but he thinks practical applications are 50 years in the future.  Is there anything that could motivate this Frenchman to somehow push those practical applications through much faster?  The answer is a fairly silly joke, but nicely executed.

Retro Review of Star Science Fiction, January 1958

Poul Anderson's "The Apprentice Wobbler" is a very minor story that reads like a Randall Garrett made-to-order-for-Campbell story, about psi. A corporation sends an engineer to investigate the sma company that has been producing machines that allow people to levitate a move objects and create energy, with the intention of discrediting them. In pure Campbell manner, the guy discovers that psi is a real power, but you can't use it if you have even a shred of disbelief, so the machine is just a placebo to make you think the power is coming from elsewhere blah blah blah. Competent, to be sure, it being Anderson, but not very good. I wonder why he didn't sell it to Campbell? Or maybe Campbell bounced it.

Retro Review of Fantastic, June and July, 1962

(Cover by Richard Powers)
Shield, obviously is a very short "novel" in this serialization. It was published in book form by Berkley in 1963. I have a copy of the 1970 reprint, also from Berkley. (Both editions have covers by Richard Powers, but different ones, and in fact the 1974 Berkley reissue has yet a third different Richard Powers cover.) That version is about 45,000 words long.

This is minor Anderson, but worthwhile reading. I remember liking it on first reading more than I did on this rereading -- that's either the result of several decades of additional experience on my part, or perhaps of the difference between the serial version and the book version. The hero is Peter Koskinen, who has just returned from Mars, with the secret of a personal body shield, learned with the wise old Martian natives. He soon realizes that his secret is coveted by several entities: the Chinese, the rather despotic rulers of the US, and the mob, more or less. None of these organizations seem all that interested in Koskinen's health, nor indeed in what's best for the world. Koskinen falls in with a femme fatale named Vivienne, whose motives are difficult to untangle. All leads to a conclusion where Koskinen, under siege from multiple sources, must make a decision consistent with his own values.

Retro Review of Analog, April 1963

"What'll You Give" is about 10,000 words long. It is one of Winston Sanders's Tales of the Flying Mountains, about an asteroid-based civilization. Sanders was of course a pseudonym for Poul Anderson. (Based on Winnie the Pooh: Winnie for Winston, P for Pooh, and Sanders because Winnie the Pooh lived "under the name of Sanders".) The stories were eventually collected as Tales of the Flying Mountains, under Anderson's name, in a paperback with one of the most Godawful '70s covers ever, from Collier.

In that collection this story is called "Que Donnerez Vous?", and I'm sure that was Anderson's original title. It's from a song one of the main characters sings, and of course it means "What'll You Give?". The story concerns miners of volatiles from Jupiter's atmosphere, volatiles intended for use in the asteroids. It's a very dangerous job, and when one miner's ship fails, three of his comrades plan to rescue him. But the man in charge cites economics as a reason the risky plan can't be tried. He is overruled, of course ... the conclusion, alas, slightly backs off from what had seemed a worthwhile conflict. It's decent middle-range Anderson.

Retro Review of If, May 1963

"Turning Point" is a neat little story. Kind of Cargo Cult in reverse. Humans come to an isolated alien planet, where the people apparently live primitive lives. But it turns out they are incredible geniuses, who simply never had the spur to develop technology. Once they see human tech, all bets are off.

Retro Review of Amazing, May and June 1965

(Cover by Gray Morrow)
The Corridors of Time is not one of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories -- not that you thought so, necessarily, but I did, until I read it, years ago. It’s pretty decent stuff, though. It opens with American graduate student (in archaeology) Malcolm Lockridge in the company of the beautiful and mysterious Storm Darroway, in Jutland, Denmark. She guides him into a mysterious underground installation, and before he knows it they are battling people in anti-gravity sleds up and down the title "corridors". Soon she reveals that her people are in a battle with another group, led by the dangerous Brann, up and down the timelines. Storm is presented as an avatar of the Goddess of the Labrys, or of Diana -- in support of emotional reaction and against technology, while Brann’s people believe in rational organization of human life, and each tries to promote their side in various historical eras. But they all know that they have no sway in the far future, access to which they are forbidden.

(Cover by Tom Chibbari)
Lockridge is smitten with the incredibly beautiful Storm, but the reader soon realizes that she is dishonest and dangerous -- while her rivals are not as bad as she says, but much mistaken as well. Much of the story concerns Lockridge’s time in a peaceful Bronze Age culture in Denmark, where he meets a beautiful chieftan’s daughter, who falls for him – if only he could forget Storm. Lockridge finds his loyalties in this time war tested, as he is kidnapped by Brann’s people and made to see to what lengths Storm and her people will go. The resolution is interesting and effectively twists through time, as Lockridge and his Bronze Age princess eventually struggle to find a middle way, outside the timeline battles. Good solid middle-range Anderson.

The serial is accompanied by a note stating that an expanded version would be published later in the year by Doubleday. And indeed, the book version is significantly longer, about 70,000 words versus 50,000 or so for the serial, and the differences show up immediately, as the book opens with Lockridge meeting Storm Darroway in prison -- he’s been accused of murder because one of a group of local thugs who attacked him hit his head while falling and died. I noticed other spots in the serial where it seemed something had been skipped ... I would say this is a clear case where the book is to be preferred.

Locus, April 2004

The closing story in The First Heroes is also good, "The Bog Sword", by the late great Poul Anderson. The setup is taken from Anderson's 1957 story "The Long Remembering", about sending a man via his "ancestral memory" to experience some hours through the consciousness of a man of the past. Here the time experienced is the end of the Bronze Age in Northern Europe, as a Danish King reminisces about his youthful travels to the South, where he encountered the Celts and their new technology -- iron. He senses -- and the present-day character (as well as the reader) knows -- that this means the end of a culture.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen

Here's a review I wrote some time ago about Rivka Galchen's first (and so far only) adult novel. She's continued to write nonfiction, a story collection, and, just recently, a children's book, Rat Rule 79. This isn't a "forgotten" novel, though the fact that Galchen has yet to produce any more adult novels probably means it's not as well remembered as it should be, and it wasn't a bestseller ... so I'm just reproducing the review because it's a book I liked that deserves the notice.

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen

a review by Rich Horton

I read and loved Rivka Galchen's short story "The Region of Unlikeness" in the New Yorker last year, and indeed reprinted it in that year's Best of the Year anthology (2009, for stories from 2008). So I bought her first novel, which also appeared last year: Atmospheric Disturbances.

The narrator, Leo, is a psychiatrist in New York with a much younger wife, Rema, from Argentina. One day he decides that the woman who has entered his apartment is not Rema but an impostor, even though she looks and talks just like Rema. His clues include the fact the Rema has acquired a dog, and the real Rema "doesn't like dogs at all". Otherwise she's almost exactly the same -- same smell, same habits, etc. The book turns on his reaction to this "imposture", and also on his treatment of one of his patients, Harvey. Harvey believes he is a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology, charged with small scale alterations of wind patterns.

Leo had taken an unusual approach to Harvey's therapy, with Rema's help: pretending to be his superior agent for the Royal Academy, under orders from Tzvi Gal-Chen, a real Fellow of the Royal Academy of Meteorology. By this means they at least manage, for a time, to keep Harvey from wandering off across the country controlling wind patterns.

But when Leo decides that a simulacrum has replaced Rema, he also begins to take his role with the Royal Academy more seriously, including reading Tzvi Gal-Chen's papers, and attempting to send him emails. He gets a couple of responses, especially strange since it turns out Gal-Chen has been dead for years. And finally Leo heads to Buenos Aires, where he stays with his mother-in-law Magda, whom he does not know, and who is for various reasons estranged to an extent from her daughter. All this gets stranger still when Harvey and Leo continue south to Patagonia on a mission for the Royal Academy ...

This is an odd and very affecting book. It is a comedy of sorts -- at times quite funny but painfully so, and at times quite sad. It seems clear that Leo is insane (and I believe there is a condition in which people become convinced that other people close to them are impostors). (Though Harvey's belief system includes the "49 Quantum Fathers", who test weather through multiple parallel realities, opening up a hint of an SFnal explanation: that the simulacrum of Rema has by accident arrived from another reality.) At the same time he is clearly at some level unconvinced that his wife -- younger, beautiful, foreign -- can really love him, and his actions (so cruel to her) may be a working out of those feelings. Tied in are meditations on the unpredictability of weather, on Argentina's "disappeared", on quantum multiple realities, as well as issues about Rema's relationship with her mother and her (lost) father. It's very nicely written, and the two central characters are well portrayed -- an excellent book.

I noticed of course the similarity of the name Tzvi Gal-Chen to the author's, and indeed there is a  picture of Tzvi Gal-Chen and his family reproduced in the book, and comparing Gal-Chen's wife's picture with the picture of Rivka Galchen on the frontispiece of my edition certainly suggests a family resemblance. And indeed Galchen's father was named Tzvi Gal-Chen, and he was a prominent meteorologist, a fellow of the American (not Royal) Meteorological Society, and he died in 1994, just as the novel's Tzvi Gal-Chen did. I learned all this from Galchen's article on taming hurricanes in the current issue of Harper's Magazine. Galchen herself has an M.D. in Psychiatry, and has written numerous articles on scientific subjects.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Birthday Review: I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle

I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle

a review by Rich Horton

I reviewed this novel back when it came out primarily because I almost knew the author. Larry Doyle was a year ahead of me at the University of Illinois, majoring in Biology while I majored in Physics. He was also from a Chicago suburb, though one nowhere particularly close to mine. He wrote for the Daily Illini (and did a comic strip, too) and I thought he was pretty funny, in a typical snarky undergraduate way. One of my best friends also wrote for the Daily Illini, so they knew each other, though they, er, weren't close. (Euphemism for "two cynical people really didn't get along at all"!) His birthday is tomorrow. Here's what I wrote about his first novel:

I finally got around to I Love You, Beth Cooper, a 2007 novel by my near classmate at the University of Illinois, Larry Doyle. (Doyle has also written for Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons and done screenplays such as Looney Tunes, the Movie.) This is a comic novel about a nerd, Denis Cooverman, graduating from high school, who gets to give the Valedictorian speech, and bravely interjects a declaration of his long felt crush on the uber-popular cheerleader Beth Cooper.

This leads to problems, needless to say. Denis and his movie-geek friend Rich (who he just outed, sort of, in the speech) are planning a typical boring night together watching movies in lieu of graduation parties, but when Beth reacts, while not positively, not quite negatively, to his comment, he invites her to his "party" -- and to the boys' shock, she, and her two hot friends, show up. Which leads to alcohol consumption. Which leads to visiting another party. Which leads to threats -- carried out -- of mayhem from Beth's Iraq vet (and sociopath) boyfriend. Which leads to a chase around the suburbs. And which leads to ... well, lots of stuff.

It's sort of a book variant of Superbad (or of numerous other teen coming of age comedies -- Sixteen Candles, even, speaking of stuff from the Chicago suburbs?). And it's very funny. It's also pretty honest about its characters -- just a bit sentimental at times, not always terribly realistic, and TV-paced, but not so much so as to be completely unbelievable. It's set in the suburbs of Chicago -- not the part I grew up in (rather, of course, the part Doyle grew up in), but recognizable enough to me to resonate. Lots of fun.

I Love You, Beth Cooper eventually became a movie, though not a very successful one. Doyle's second novel was Go, Mutants!, from 2010. A movie is supposedly in development based on that novel (which I haven't read.) Doyle has also contributed to the New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs section -- I've read some of his stuff there.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Early stories of Alfred Coppel

Alfred Coppel, born this date in 1921, wrote a number of stories in the late '40s and early '50s for the SF pulps, but mostly abandoned the field after 1956. There was one more story in If in 1969, and at the same time he expanded his enjoyable space opera novella "The Rebel of Valkyr" to the also enjoyable four volume YA Rhada series, beginning with The Rebel of Rhada, written as by "Robert Cham Gilman". In 1983 he published an alternate history of World War II, The Burning Mountain, in which the US has to invade Japan. Then in the '90s he published a well-received Space Opera trilogy, the Goldenwing Cycle, beginning with the novel Glory. In the mean time he was working in other fields, as he had from the beginning of his career, and he had one major bestseller, Thirty-Four East (1974). Coppel died in 2005.

Coppel's '50's SF was not terribly memorable for the most part, but quite professionally executed. I'm including the bits and pieces I've written about his stories. Alas, I don't have anything on my favorite, the gleefully silly "Rebel of Valkyr", which can be found in Brian W. Aldiss' excellent 1976 anthology Galactic Empires, Volume One. I can, however, reproduce the delightful cover of that issue! (I don't know who painted it, alas.)

Review of Super Science Fiction, November 1950

The other stories include a longish (8500 words) short story by Alfred Coppel. I quite enjoyed Coppel's Rhada series (as by "Robert Cham Gilman"): a YAish Space Opera set complete with horses in the holds of spaceships. These were based on a story from the Fall 1950 Planet Stories, "The Rebel of Valkyr", as by Coppel. Despite this Space Opera, much of Coppel's early 50s SF was more techy in nature, including the story to hand: "Star Tamer", in which a guy starts a "booster" business on the moon, and in an emergency comes up with a new orbit, dangerously close to the Sun, as the only way to get vaccine to Europa in time. (Good thing no teenaged girl stowed away!)

Review of Planet Stories, January 1951

"Task to Luna" by Alfred Coppel uses a variant on a plot I've seen before: Americans and Russians race to the Moon in order to establish a beachhead for Cold War purposes, only to find that the aliens who show up are a much greater menace.

Review of Cosmos, November 1953

Alfred Coppel's "The Guilty" is here to fulfill the official requirement that every issue of every SF magazine in the 50s have a Nuclear War story. This one is about the entire population of the US committing suicide in guilt over having obliterated the Soviet Union (even thought the Russians struck first). Very sanctimonious.

Review of Vortex, Volume 1, Number 1, 1953

Vortex was one of the worst SF magazines of all time. They published only two issues, in 1953. They may be best known for featuring Marion Zimmer Bradley's first two professional sales, in the second issue. The first issue notably featured three writers who made their reputations after leaving the SF field: Milton Lesser, who wrote mysteries as by Stephen Marlowe; S. A. Lombino, who wrote mysteries as by Evan Hunter and as by Ed McBain; and Alfred Coppel. (Both Lesser and Lombino eventually legally changed their names to their more prominent pseudonyms (Hunter in the case of Lombino, instead of McBain).)

[Here are Coppel's two stories.]

"Homecoming", by Alfred Coppel (9500 words) -- after a pointless nuclear war a man tries to return to his wife and kid, only to find them bombed out -- luckily for him he gets to trade up to a younger model, but virtuously only commits to her after mourning his wife. (My cynicism is unfair -- the story is well-enough done, its main weakness being a complete lack of surprises or any hint of originality.)

"Love Affair", by Derfla Leppoc (1100 words) -- a robot falls in love, sort of, with the last surviving human woman. Note the absurd pseudonym (Alfred Coppel spelled backwards), adopted apparently to disguise the fact that Coppel had two stories in the issue.

From a review of Fourth, edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Next is Alfred Coppel's "Mars is Ours" (F&SF, October 1954), a bitter extrapolation of the Cold War to Mars – as purely a 50s story as one could ask for, but still resonant.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Birthday Review: The Precipice, and four short stories, by Ben Bova

Ben Bova turns 87 today -- and he's still actively writing, with his novel Earth having appeared this past July. (James Gunn is 96 and also actively publishing -- I can't think offhand of another still active SF writer as old.) Here is one review I did of his 2001 novel The Precipice, first in the Asteroid Wars series, as well as two very early stories (his first two, I believe), and two later stories that I reviewed in Locus.

The Precipice, by Ben Bova

Ben Bova's new novel, which on internal evidence seems to be related to his recent [Insert Name of Planet Here] series (officially called The Grand Tour), as well as to the Sam Gunn stories, and other Bova books (I had no idea!), is "The Precipice", just serialized in Analog.  I believe the book version is due from Tor any time now.  I haven't been reading Bova's novels lately, but I thought having the serial in front of me was a reasonable opportunity to try one. It's pretty much what you might expect -- a solid and fun adventure, with best-sellerish two-D characters, and some strident politics, pro-Space and anti-radical Environmentalism. The villains are really Evull -- they are caricatures. The heroes are a bit better, if not exactly wholly rounded -- but at least they have both good and bad points, indeed, at times they are rather stupid.

The book opens with the US (indeed the world) in environmental chaos, due to the Greenhouse Cliff (or the Precipice of the title) having been reached. But even though the Greens were right about the Greenhouse effect, they, along with other basically evil bureaucrats, resisted means of solving the Greehouse problem: mainly nuclear power, industrialization of space, and nanotech.  One of the main heroes is Dan Randolph, the 60ish head of Astro Corporation, who is depicted in a rather unnecessary scene as trying to rescue the former US president, and his lover, Jane Scanwell, as she tries to help refugees from flooding and earthquakes in Memphis.  The whole bit about his affair seemed wasted -- I suspect it might be tying up loose ends from earlier books.

Soon he is fielding a proposal from his slimy rival Martin Humphries, to try to develop a small fusion powerplant which will open up the resources of the asteroids to humanity, if it can be made to fit a spaceship. And we're off, as Dan's company, mostly on the Moon, rapidly (kind of like Tom Swift, only slightly more plausibly) develops said spaceship, while Dan appoints two women to be the pilots. One is our other protagonist, Pancho Lane, a savvy black woman with a mission to make enough money, by means fair or foul (but only slightly foul, she has standards), to be able to save her sister's life. The other woman is the incredibly beautiful Amanda (I forget her last name). And soon Dan and Pancho are fighting off threats from Humphries and the various regulators in a race to reach the Asteroids and claim some rocks in time to save Astro Corporation from bankruptcy, and also save the Earth.

It's a fast and enjoyable read, if you kind of ignore the broad characters (the main villain turns out be not just a slimy thieving corporate raider, not just a murderer, but naturally a sexual prevert with designs on Amanda too), and the conveniences such as an invisibility suit showing up just when needed. Certainly not great stuff, and not to everybody's taste, but fun.

Review of Amazing, February 1960

Finally, "The Long Way Back" was Ben Bova's first published short story, though a juvenile novel, The Star Conquerors, appeared from Winston in 1959. Bova ended up writing a great many science articles for Cele Goldsmith, and a few stories. This one is also post-apocalyptic, and somewhat didactic, and the hero is a middle-aged man who has been recruited to repair a power-satellite to beam power to a small enclave of survivors. His price is help investigating the ruins of the cities to recover more knowledge -- but he realizes that he has been betrayed: no one will help him, and in reality he doesn't have enough oxygen to survive the trip back to Earth. But should be betray the whole world? He finds a solution that will benefit the remaining survivors, but not in the way they had planned. The message is pretty solid, but the story is executed somewhat clumsily.

Review of Amazing, January 1962

Ben Bova’s “The Towers of Titan” turns out to be only his second published short story. (The first sale was also to Cele Goldsmith — “A Long Way Back,” Amazing, February 1960). He did publish a Winston Juvenile, The Star Conquerors, in 1959.

The Star Conquerors“The Towers of Titan” is a minor piece (and does not seem to have been reprinted except in one of the Sol Cohen super cheap reprint ‘zines.) Dr. Sidney Lee is a respected scientist who had a breakdown when confronted by the mystery of the mysterious towers on Titan – alien machinery that has been operating for a million years.

At last, he returns, kindling a relationship with a lovely woman scientist (who looks a bit like Carol Emshwiller according to the illustrations), and taking over leadership of the ongoing investigation, all the while convinced that the machines are the product of malevolent aliens. It ends with a sudden revelation about the machines’ purpose (that revelation in itself not too bad an idea).

Locus, June 2003

Ben Bova's "Sam and the Flying Dutchman" (Analog, June) is a Sam Gunn story. These are usually quite amusing, and this one delivers, as Sam flees marriage and tries to help a damsel in distress.

Locus, April 2005

The March Amazing Stories, #609, is available only in electronic form. I hope this magazine gets back on its print feet -- it's been a promising publication so far. This issue includes a Sam Gunn story from Ben Bova, "Piker's Peek", reliable entertainment from a veteran, as Sam inveigles a bitter rival into investing in a Lunar resort project.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Forgotten Book: The Creatures of Man, by Howard Myers

The Creatures of Man, by Howard L. Myers

a review by Rich Horton

Is this book forgotten? Perhaps not -- it was only published in 2003. But the author was all but forgotten until his work was resurrected by Eric Flint and Guy Gordon. They have since pubished another collection, The Reign of Infinity, with his novel Cloud Chamber and a few more stories. Here's what I wrote back in 2003:

Eric Flint (often with the help of Guy Gordon) has been putting out a series for Baen books of collections of stories by older authors, now mostly forgotten. He began with a series of several books by James Schmitz, which when they get around to reissuing The Witches of Karres will have returned all of Schmitz's published stories to print. He has also put together collections by Randall Garrett, Christopher Anvil, Keith Laumer, Murray Leinster, and Tom Godwin. All these authors have long stopped writing, and all but Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) are dead. [Crosby (aka Anvil) died in 2009, after I wrote the first version of this.]  All but Laumer were also primarily associated with Astounding/Analog and John W. Campbell. (Laumer published stories in Analog under Ben Bova's editorship, but I don't know of any he sold to Campbell.) (Well, Leinster was prolific enough that you couldn't say he was "primarily" associated with Astounding -- but he did publish a lot there.)

While I've found these collections to be of variable quality (I like the Schmitz books a lot, for instance, but the one Anvil book I read was rather poor), I do think the project as a whole is admirable. Flint has resurrected a lot of competent adventure-style SF of the 50s and 60s -- rarely great stuff but often quite enjoyable. I must admit, though, that I was surprised by his latest project -- a collection of stories by Howard L. Myers, also known as Verge Foray. I knew the name Foray as an Analog writer of the late 60s -- I didn't know the name Myers at all. I had an image of "Verge Foray" as the ultimate "late Campbell" writer. Offhand he didn't seem to me a writer much in need of resurrection. That said, I have to admit I'd read very little of his work -- a couple of Analog stories that seemed psi-obsessed to me, in line with one of Campbell's most annoying hobbyhorses.

So I picked up a copy of The Creatures of Man, ready to give Myers a fair try. This book includes 19 stories, a good portion of his total output. Another 5 or 10 stories and one novel (Cloud Chamber) exist. Myers was born in 1930, and published a story in Galaxy in 1952 ("The Reluctant Weapon" -- a pretty good piece, actually, one of the best in the book). He published nothing more until 1967, when "Lost Calling", as by "Verge Foray", appeared in Analog. He was quite prolific over the next few years, publishing a passel of stories in Analog as well as a few in Amazing, Fantastic, F&SF, If, and Galaxy. He died only 41 years of age in 1971. His stories kept appearing through 1974 -- his last, "The Frontliners", appeared in the July 1974 issue of Galaxy -- the issue just preceding the first one I ever saw. The novel did not come out until 1977. I can only assume that he left a pile of unsold stories which his mother (I'm guessing, but he seems to have been living with his mother when he died) kept marketing. All told, an interesting, and rather sad, career arc. Flint and Gordon assert that had he had the chance to continue developing, he'd have been a major author. I'm not so sure -- the later stories do not seem particularly to show an arc of improvement, though to be fair he may not have quite "finished" those that appeared after his death. I will say that he had some interesting ideas, though his prose was pedestrian, and his characters, especially the women, were totally unconvincing.

How was the book? It's a tale of two halves. The first half has some nice stuff. As I've mentioned, "The Reluctant Weapon", a story about a lazy superweapon abandoned by a long lost Galactic race, and its encounter with a backwoods Earthman, is a pretty fair effort. "Fit for a Dog" is a biting story of an ecologically challenged future earth and the evolved superdogs that inhabit it. "All Around the Universe" is not bad either, about a dilettantish man in the very far future, when the economy depends on "Admiration Points", and his search for a mysterious planet. It's both fairly witty and nicely imagined. And several more stories in the first half of the book betray a pretty fair SFnal imagination.

The second half of the book is devoted to a cycle of stories Flint has dubbed "The Chalice Cycle". Most of these are part of Myers' so-called "Econo-War" series, which began in Analog and concluded (long after his death) in Galaxy. These are set in a post-scarcity future in which two human federations of worlds are engaged in a mostly-nonviolent (with exceptions) "war". The idea is that even though people's needs are easily met, so ordinary competition for resources is unnecessary, people will stagnate without some sort of meaningful struggle -- hence, the "econo-war". The stories' setting reminded me (in a contrasting way) of Iain Banks's Culture, enough so to make me wonder if they weren't among the stories that Banks has said he was reacting to when he devised that setting. At any rate, Myers's take on things seems almost uber-Campbellian.

The various Econo-War stories involve the two sides in the War coming up with technological advances, giving first one side then the other a temporary advantage. There are some cute SFnal ideas involved, mainly the way people travel through space -- naked, with some implanted tech to provide protection, inertial suppression, and breathing, etc. However, I was mostly unconvinced -- I think one story in the setting would have been plenty -- the eventual 6 seemed tedious.

There are two pendant stories. One, "The Earth of Nenkumal", is more a "magic goes away" story -- it's a novella from Fantastic in 1974 that is set in the long past on Earth, when magic is being suppressed by the evil efforts of the "God-Warriors" -- a long period in which religion will take the place of magic, with concomitant misery, is forthcoming, and the hero, a repentant God-Warrior, is recruited to help one of the last magicians hide a powerful good luck charm for eventual use when magic returns. It's an OK story, with a decent twist at the end, but I was severely bothered by the sexual politics. It opens with a gang-bang on a table in a bog-standard fantasy pub -- fully consensual on the woman's part (she's a barmaid), but icky to me nonetheless. (The idea is that in the utopian magic world people are so unhungup about sex they just do it all the time, in public, with pretty much anyone.) It may be totally unfair of me to say this, but when you hear that the writer of such a scene was still living with his mother at age 41 you are hardly surprised. Towards the end the hero rapes a woman who soon after is grateful to him for having done so and asking for more. Ickier still, she is sexually mature but less than ten years old mentally. Perhaps I should have been speculating along with the author about such enlightened non-standard sexual mores, but I couldn't really play along.

The last story is "Questor", and it's about an Econo-War participant who lands on Earth looking for a fabled object which will give the holder good luck. Apparently this is the object hidden in "The Earth of Nenkumal", linking all those stories together. Well, OK, but I really think the link unnecessary and silly. However, "Questor" taken alone is actually a decent story, and interestingly it predates all the other "Econo-War" stories.

(Just to complain a bit more about Myers's sexual politics, the last Econo-War story features a mutated super girl who spends the story looking for a similarly mutated superman with whom to have kids. It wasn't actively offensive like the rape stuff in "The Earth of Nenkumal", but it was cringe-inducing in its portrayal of the woman's attitudes.)

So, in sum, I can't strongly recommend The Creatures of Man. It's an uneven book, with some OK stuff, some promising stories. Nothing I'd call a lost classic, but some pretty fine stuff. On the other hand, plenty of pedestrian stuff, and some downright icky stuff. I'm unconvinced by the editors' argument that Myers had the potential to be a top writer in the field, but I'll allow that if he could have developed his skills he had a decent imagination and he might have done some pretty good work.

Birthday Review: Stories of Rahul Kanakia

Today is Rahul Kanakia's birthday. He's been publishing SF short fiction since 2006, and while I saw that story, "Butterfly Jesus Saves the World", in the second issue of an interesting small magazine, Fictitious Force, I confess I don't remember it. (Fictitious Force  was also interesting for its unusual form factor -- very tall -- somewhat like Rahul, perhaps, though I haven't met him in person.) I started noticing his work early this decade, and the four reviews I present before are of stories that really impressed me, particularly "Empty Planets", one of the finest SF short stories of this decade, and to my mind a sadly underappreciated one. For the past few years he has been focussing on YA novels, it seems, with his first, Enter Title Here, having appeared in 2016, and his second, We Are Totally Normal, due in 2020.

Locus, December 2015

Lightspeed's November issue is a strong one. Rahul Kanakia's “Here is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All” has one of the more original ideas I've seen in a while – not original as in mind-blowing or weird so much as in just taking an unexpected, and fairly logical, look at some some SF tropes from a slant angle. It's told by a spaceship that was buried in the Earth's core by aliens for millions of years, and which has finally emerged. It has a mission – for its makers – and it will not be deviated from it – at least, not much. The spaceship is effectively portrayed as truly non-human, and yet the story becomes something of a love story, though not in any expected way.

Locus, March 2016

Even better is Rahul Kanakia’s “Empty Planets” (Interzone, January-February), my pick for the best story in this young year. David is a child of a family of “shareholders” on the Moon far in the future. Most of his class use their economic heft either to earn procreation rights or to while away their lives in neurological loops, but he decides to pursue “Non Mandatory Studies”, even though the Machine that rules human society assures him he’s not smart enough to contribute anything special. There he meets another sort of outcast, Margery, a “recontactee” from a generation ship that the AI rescued. Margery is particularly intelligent, and she wants to study the potentially intelligent gas clouds of Altair III. David and Margery become close, and in a personal sense their lives follow a conventional story pattern. But nothing I’ve said even hints at the powerful, profound core of this story. The far future setting is pleasant but lonely – no other intelligent species has been found, the Machine seems to be shepherding humanity to extinction (in the gentlest way), and the only important question is “what does it all mean?” Which is, isn’t it, always the most important question? Achingly lovely, truly thought-provoking, sad but not sad. Kanakia has been doing nice work for some time, but this story seems a real milestone.

Locus, April 2018

Lightspeed’s February issue includes a fine and pointed fantasy by Rahul Kanakia, “A Coward’s Death”, about an all-powerful Emperor conscripting the first sons of his subjects to work on a massive statue. The moral is simple – his rule is unjust, but resistance, as they say, is futile. Nonetheless, one young man in the narrator’s village resists. The tale is lightly told but mordant, and effective.

Locus, June 2018

The 12 April issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies includes a nice piece from Rahul Kanakia, “Weft”, told by a magic user named Thread, who with his two companions is charged with hunting down people who have gained potentially dangerous magical powers and eliminating them. The current subject is a cook’s daughter, and the question arises, what has she done to deserve extermination? Why not let her go? But can they get away with that? And is it really a good idea? All interestingly posed questions.