Saturday, December 28, 2019

Birthday Review: The Sinful Ones/You're All Alone, by Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber was born on Christmas Eve in 1910. He died in 1992. He was named an SFWA Grand Master in 1982, and received Lifetime Achievement World Fantasy and Balrog awards as well. He also won six Hugos, two for Best Novel, two for Best Novella, and one for Best Short Story, plus a curious special award for "the use of SF in advertising". He's one of my favorite writers, so I I'm doing this belated birthday review of one of my favorites among his novels, The Sinful Ones, and its earlier version, "You're All Alone." The reviews are very brief capsules, I will add.

(Cover by Robert Gibson Jones)
The Sinful Ones had an odd publication history. It began as a novella called "You're All Alone", slated for John Campbell's fantasy companion to Astounding, Unknown. When the World War II paper shortage killed Unknown, Fritz Leiber had to abandon it. (At this time he had to take a defense job, too.) After the war he rewrote his original idea from scratch, first as a 40,000 word novel called "You're All Alone", which was published in Fantastic Adventures for July 1950. He expanded it by about 50% and this version ended up at a rather sleazy house, Universal, who added some "spicy" sex scenes, in a way that embarrassed Leiber. (They also hung the not awful but not as good as "You're All Alone" title of The Sinful Ones on it.) That edition was published in 1953 as an omnibus with another novel, about bullfighting, Blood, Bulls and Passion. (Not by Leiber.)

Finally, in 1980, Leiber had a chance to reprint the novel at Pocket Books, but he no longer had his original manuscript. So he worked from the published version, but rewrote the sex scenes. Which ended up being a good idea, I think. They're pretty good scenes (I think Leiber is a good writer of sex scenes), and there's no way the Leiber of 1953 would have written those scenes.

The Sinful Ones is a very good urban fantasy, from before there were urban fantasies. It's about a man in Chicgao, stuck in a rut, with his ambitious girlfriend pushing him to get a better job. One day he meets a strange, scared, young woman, Jane Gregg. Something about this encounter kicks him out of his rut, and he realizes in essence that he and only a few other people, including Jane, are truly "alive". As long as he is out of his "routine", nobody else perceives him. The novel is spooky, and sexy, and thought-provoking, and scary. It's a real good read, too, and the portrayal of Chicago is fun as well.  The eventual resolution is only OK, not great, but it hints at better things.

(Cover by Michael Whelan)
I read "You're All Alone" for comparison's sake. It's quite significantly different from The Sinful Ones. For the most part, the longer novel is superior, in my opinion, though some of that may be because I read it first. The basic story is the same, though: Carr Mackay discovers that almost everybody is an unconscious part of a machine: only a few people are capable of independent action. Most people use this power to play awful games with the unconscious people, but Carr is discovered by a young woman, Jane Gregg, who will not act like this, and tries to hide from the rival groups of evil awakened people. After resisting the true nature of the world for a while, Carr finally gives in, falls in love with Jane, and at the end finds himself in a desperate battle with the villains.

It's an intriguing premise (reminiscent, to me, of the movie Dark City, which I happened to see at about the same time as I first read The Sinful Ones). The conclusion in both cases is OK, but a bit abrupt, and in neither case is any larger issue resolved, beyond Carr and Jane's immediate danger. (Which may actually be the more honest approach.) But the longer novel does work things out much better, and has some decent sex scenes (added in 1980, actually, so it might not be fair to criticize "You're All Alone" for its lack of same), and in general Jane and Carr are both more fleshed out. (The edition I have of You're All Alone is an Ace paperback including the 40000 word short novel and two novelets: "Four Ghosts in Hamlet" and "The Creature from Cleveland Depths", both very well worth reading as well.)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Old Bestseller: Lavender and Old Lace, by Myrtle Reed

Old Besteller: Lavender and Old Lace, by Myrtle Reed

a review by Rich Horton

Sometimes -- often! -- the life stories of the writers of these Old Bestsellers are more interesting, more lurid, than the stories in their novels. I've covered a couple of writers who were murdered in the past. Here's a writer who committed suicide at the age of 36, despite what seems to have been a fair amount of commercial success. To be sure, commercial success does not necessarily translate to personal happiness.

Myrtle Reed was born in 1874 in Chicago. Her father was a preacher and the editor of a literary magazine (the Lakeside Monthly), and her mother was a writer on theological subjects. Myrtle published juvenilia as early as the age of 10, and continued to write, though she showed signs of depression from early on, and did not attend college after a breakdown. Her first novel, Love Letters of a Musician (1899), went through at least 15 printings, and the book at hand, Lavender and Old Lace (1902) was also wildly successful. (My copy is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint from 1907.)

Reed married James McCullough, who worked in real estate, in 1906, after a courtship of some 15 years. Alas, the marriage does not seem to have been a success, and McCullough turned to drink, and spent considerable time away from home. Reed, long a user of Veronal, committed suicide in 1911. This quote, from her posthumous novel Threads of Gray and Gold, seems possibly only too personal: "The only way to test a man is to marry him. If you live, it's a mushroom. If you die, it's a toadstool."

(Incidentally, as Greg Feeley divined, this title was what Joseph Kesselring was riffing on when he gave his play Arsenic and Old Lace its title.)

So, what of this novel itself? I have to say, I found it kind of a mess. A promising mess, in that the established situation could have resulted in a pretty neat story. But the novel fumbles things badly.

It opens with 25 year old Ruth Thorne coming to her aunt's house by the sea for a few months of rest. She's had some sort of health breakdown, and needs to take a few months off her job as a women's issues reporter for a newspaper. (Her job is presumably in New York, and her Aunt's house must be in, perhaps, Connecticut? Never made clear.) Oddly, though, Ruth's aunt, Miss Jane Hathaway (whom she has never met) has gone overseas on a suddenly planned trip. Ruth meets the maid of all work, Hepsley, and settles in to a very languid life, her only duty a strange one: to light a lamp and leave it in the window of the attic every night.

Soon Ruth has explored the attic and found some curious hints of an interesting past for her aunt. A seafaring man seems to have been important. And a man named Charles Winfield is mentioned. Along with a notice of Mr. Winfield's marriage to another woman, and that woman's death. But Rose is a gentlewoman, and refuses to snoop further.

Soon she encounters an old, but perhaps estranged, friend of Miss Hathaway, a Miss Ainslie. Miss Ainslie obviously has her own secrets, and she is considered very odd by the rest of the village. But Ruth and Miss Ainslie quickly become very close friends. More complications arise from M iss Hathaway's maid Hepsley's extended courtship by a local yokel; and then by the appearance of a young man who also works on a newspaper, and who also is on a rest cure -- in his case, his eyes have failed him. This man has the intriguing name of Carl Winfield. Before long Ruth is reading the daily newspaper to Carl, and as the reader expects, they begin to become close ...

The resolution is prompted by the sudden return of Miss Hathaway, who is no longer Miss Hathaway, but instead Mrs. Ball. Mr. Ball is named James, and he seems not too happy about his perhaps forced marriage. It seems he is the mysterious man in Miss Hathaway's past, who maybe ran away to sea to escape her clutches. Then what of the mysterious Charles Winfield? And the light in the window? And Miss Ainslie's past, not to mention her unusual interest in young Carl Winfield?

I'm sure you can all guess the answers to these questions. Alas, they are revealed in a terribly anticlimactic fashion. So the novel really disappoints. But there are lots of interesting elements. Hepsley and her beau, for example, are sometimes amusing comic foils. So too is James Ball, and his relationship with his new wife, the former Miss Hathaway, is also played, fairly effectively, for laughs. And the whole story of the light in the window, and Miss Ainslie's secret, is reasonable scaffolding for a cool mystery. But for all that, Reed just doesn't make the whole mix work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Michael Moorcock

Today's birthday review is of one of the most significant figures in SF history, SFWA Grand Master Michael Moorcock. Moorcock, who turns 80 today, was a hugely important editor, the man who helmed New Worlds through the mid to late 1960s, the very apex of the New Wave. He was also (is also!) a major writer, with contributions to heroic fantasy, to science fiction, and to literary fiction.

My reactions to Moorcock have been wildly varied. I loved Behold the Man when I read it as a novella at age 14 or so in a Nebula volume. I adored the Dancers at the End of Time series. But I never got on at all with his Jerry Cornelius stories. I read a few Elric novels and my reaction was more or less "Meh". And I've run across a few stories over time that I just hated. I compare him to James Blish as one of the few writers who could be just terrible on occasion, and absolutely brilliant the next time out.

Below I offer a set of review of some of his stories, mostly less well-known. Some are from Locus reviews, and some are from much earlier. Some of the stories are weak, some are very good. And it all opens with, of all things, a look at a letter he wrote very early in his career!

Retro-Review of Fantastic, July 1962

The letter column was quite irregular in Fantastic, but it's present in the July issue, for something of a special occasion, perhaps. Michael Moorcock, then a very young writer (his first story, in collaboration with Barrington Bayley, appeared in New Worlds in 1959, and his first solo work in 1961 in Science Fantasy), had read comments about Mervyn Peake and his Gormenghast books in Fantastic earlier that year, and he wrote to mention that Peake (whom he knew well) was seriously ill and unlikely to write another Titus Groan Book. He commends the anthology Sometime, Never to the Fantastic readership (which included good stories by Peake, William Golding, and John Wyndham). He disputes reader Pat Scott's contention that the Gormenghast books were "Gothic" (a common characterization), and instead suggests Peake's writing, despite the grotesqueries and "purple prose", is more objective -- more like Shakespeare than Dylan Thomas. He compares Steerpike to Richard III. He laments the likelihood (which proved true) that Peake would write no more. He praises Fritz Leiber highly (much better, he suggests, than Dunsany). And he finds time to praise Fantastic in particular.

Retro-Review of Science Fiction Adventures, November 1962

The lead "Short Novel" is Michael Moorcock's "The Sundered Worlds", at 24,000 words. The blurb for "The Sundered Worlds" reads "Michael Moorcock, a rising young London author, has been making quite a name for himself in our bi-monthly companion Science Fantasy. With a developing flair for other-world descriptiveness, we prevailed upon him to try a long science fiction story -- with the following surprising result." (I assume Carnell meant to ascribe the "developing flair for other-world descriptiveness" to Moorcock, though a strict reading of that sentence would suggest it concerns the means Carnell himself used to convince Moorcock to try SF.) I haven't read any of Moorcock's earlier stories, those that made him a "rising young ... author". Certainly his later career bears out Carnell's belief in him. But "The Sundered Worlds" does not!

"The Sundered Worlds" is, to put it mildly, a mess. It begins like a low-grade imitation of A. Bertram Chandler, and sort of makes up stuff as it goes along to get worse, trending towards a transcendent ending that would have been OK if it had been set up better. I was reminded, besides Chandler, of the sort of wild pulp flights of imagination that I associate with a much earlier time -- John Boston suggests Planet Stories, but I was thinking of something earlier and less pure adventure oriented. All this could certainly be made to work, after a fashion, but it doesn't work here. The writing is downright poor (at the sentence level), the imagination is slapdash, the characterization is arbitrary (and sexist), and of course the scientific rationale is nonexistent.

The hero is Renark, a powerful Guide Senser, who meets with his friends Talfryn and Asquiol, the latter a disgraced nobleman, on the isolated Rim planet Migaa. From this planet the three plan to transition to the "Shifter", a curious planetary system that apparently traverse several universes in an extra-dimensional path. Renark apparently believes he must learn the secret of the Shifter System, for, it transpires, the Human universe has begun to contract, and humanity must find another universe to inhabit. The three men, along with a beautiful young woman Asquiol has taken up with, Willow, make their way to the Shifter. After fighting off an attack from hostile aliens, they find the world colonized by humans who have made it to the Shifter. There Renark must find a mad woman called Mary the Maze, who has visited the strange planet called Roth, or Ragged Ruth -- a planet that exists simultaneously in many dimensions. There Renark will meet aliens who will lead him to the ultimate secrets of the nature of the multiverse, and the possible destiny of humans, if they can evolve themselves sufficiently. Or something like that.

In description it doesn't sound hopeless. But in execution it is. I really suspect Moorcock didn't know where he was going as he wrote the story. I also think he was still learning to write -- the prose seems to improve as the story continues (or else I became acclimated to the style). What was going on? Andy Robertson suggests that Moorcock was cynically working out his hatred of SF, by writing a story so bad that it would demonstrate the emptiness of the genre. I have to doubt that was really his intention. At any rate, he demonstrated rather that it was possible to write a really bad SF story -- but I think we knew that already. John Boston suggests more of an attempt to recreate an old style of superscience story, with a dimension-transcending fate for humanity, etc. etc. This seems closer to the mark -- the problem being that by 1962 such a story needed a greater degree of writing skill and imagination than may have been necessary in, say, 1936.

It occurs to me that I have perhaps been harder on this story than I would be if the same thing was written by someone I had never heard of. This may well be -- I expect more from a celebrated writer like Moorcock, and thus I may be more critical when my expectations aren't met. And the Moorcock of 1962 may simply not have had the skills that he eventually developed.

There is a sequel, "The Blood Red Game", that appeared in the last issue of Science Fiction Adventures, #32. I'll be reviewing that in a day or two. The two stories combined were published as a novel, under each title at different times: The Sundered World and The Blood Red Game.

Retro-Review of Science Fiction Adventures, May 1963

(Cover by Gerard Quinn)
"The Blood Red Game" is a direct sequel to "The Sundered Worlds". The protagonist of "The Sundered Worlds", Lenark, went down with the ship -- or universe -- at the end of that story, so this time around the nominal hero is Asquiol. He leads an expedition of humans to another universe, where they encounter inexplicably hostile aliens. It turns out the aliens believe in resolving conflict via games, and they agree to play the "Blood Red Game" of the title with humans in lieu of direct war. But the humans, not surprisingly, are losing anyway -- the game, a sort of telepathic battle of intimidation, was invented by the aliens after all.

Luckily a rebellious man named Roffrey fled the earlier space battle out of a combination of cowardice and orneriness. He makes his way to the Sundered World of the previous story, and there meets Asquiol's one time lover Willow, and Asquiol and Lenark's former associate Talfryn. Roffrey also tracks down Mary the Maze, the madwoman from the previous story. She turns out (that is to say, Moorcock's conveniently makes it up on the spot) to be Roffrey's estranged wife. The four head back to the other universe and -- surprise -- they turn out to be fabulously good players of the Blood Red Game. Naturals, you might say. Well -- 20 some thousand words later, the aliens are vanquished, Mary is sane, Asquiol is a god more or less, and "The multiverse ... delighted them ..."

Review of Leviathan 3 (Locus, May 2002)

I was less impressed with Michael Moorcock's "The Camus Referendum", a Jerry Cornelius story, to do with future corporatism and war, which frankly reduced me to pretty much reading sentences without assigning them meaning. This happened to me with a similar Jerry Cornelius story in Interzone a couple years back. I can only conclude that I am out of sympathy with Moorcock's aims here. There is also a Moorcock novel excerpt, "The Vengeance of Rome, Chapter 3", which is nicely written but which reads like a novel excerpt and not like a complete story.

Locus, April 2004

One very intriguing debut publication is Argosy, a magazine launched at least somewhat in the tradition of the early 20th Century magazine of that name, in that it will feature a "catholic" array of stories -- stories from all genres. One bit of welcome news is that each issue will feature a separately bound novella. The novella for January-February 2004 is Michael Moorcock's "The Mystery of the Texas Twister". Metatemporal investigators Seaton Begg and Taffy Sinclair investigate a dastardly plot to start an unjust war, involving Texas politicians. I was a bit disappointed, as the action was downright silly without really being very funny.

Locus, November 2007

Interzone’s July-August issue is a Michael Moorcock special. It includes an interesting extract from a memoir of Mervyn Peake that Moorcock is working on, a Guest Editorial, an interview, a novel extract, and one new story, “The Affair of the Bassin les Hivers”, a very entertaining story of a murdered prostitute and time travel, featuring as usual for Moorcock members of his multiversal repeating cast, such as Una Persson.

Review of Solaris 2 (Locus, February 2008)

Michael Moorcock’s “Modem Times” is a wild mélange of incidents across his multiverse – these stories have never been to my taste (perhaps I need to have read more of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories to get them) – but I suspect this will appeal to devotees of the Cornelius branch of Moorcock’s storytelling. (For me, I’ll take more Seaton Begg and more Jherek Carnelian.)

Locus, June 2008

Another more traditional kind of weirdness is displayed in the long Elric story Michael Moorcock offers, “Black Petals” (Weird Tales, March-April). Elric is seeking a flower which blooms but once a century, and which he hopes will offer him a way to avoid using Stormbringer, the sword that when drawn must kill, and that he must use to sustain his life. He joins a party formed by a couple of sisters who wish to rescue their father, who was lost in the ruined city of Soom, where the flower blooms. It is reasonably conventional Sword and Sorcery – that is, conventional in the way the genre was redefined by the likes of Moorcock – and while it’s familiar stuff, it’s quite effective.

Locus, October 2010

There are plenty further excellent stories in Stories, for example Michael Moorcock’s novelette also called “Stories”, a roman à clef retelling the history of New Worlds as if it had been a mystery magazine instead of SF, and featuring thinly disguised versions of the likes of Tom Disch and J. G. Ballard.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Randall Garrett

Randall Garrett would have turned 92 today. Last year I reviewed his Psi-Power trilogy with Laurence M. Janifer as by Mark Phillips, all serialized in Astounding, beginning with "That Sweet Little Old Lady". This year, a look at some of his short fiction, that I've covered in a number of my looks at old SF magazines.

Retro-Review of Space Science Fiction, May 1953

Garrett's "Instant of Decision" features an intelligence agent tracking down a saboteur who discovers a mysterious and invulnerable intruder. The agent recovers a device from the intruder which turns out to be instructions for students of a future Galactic Empire studying Ancient Earth. Was the intruder a time traveler? At the same time he is assigned to track down a spy from the "Eastern League", with the hopes of averting a nuclear war. But the spy gets away, and the agent follows ... leading to a tense confrontation and a rather ironic ending, Not a bad story, not a great one.

Retro-Review of Science Fiction Adventures, December 1956

The most amusing aspect of this magazine is the contents list. In particular, it includes one story by Robert Randall, who, as most know, was actually Chum Robert Silverberg in collaboration with Randall Garrett. It also includes a story by Calvin Knox and David Gordon. Well, Calvin Knox was Silverberg's nicely Protestant pseudonym, and David Gordon was a pseudonym for -- Randall Garrett! The Robert Randall story is "Secret of the Green Invaders", the Knox/Gordon story is "Battle for the Thousand Suns". There is also a story by Edmond Hamilton, "The Starcombers", and a short story by Harlan Ellison, "Hadj". So -- an all-star lineup -- though in 1956 Ellison's name surely wasn't that prominent, and "Robert Randall", "Calvin Knox", and "David Gordon" hardly had the clout that "Robert Silverberg" and "Randall Garrett" do in retrospect.

Robert Randall's "Secret of the Green Invaders" is a fairly cute story in the tradition of Eric Frank Russell and Christopher Anvil. Earth has been ruled by a series of alien overlords for about a millennium, after humans nearly destroyed the planet. Galactic politics have led to a confusing series of changes in the particular alien race that rules Earth, but for the past few years the green-skinned Khoomish have been in charge. Josslyun Carter is the leader of a small resistance group descended from the US Marines, but just as he is ready to launch a rebellion attempt, he is arrested. He expects death, but the Khoomish leader has other uses for him ... I daresay most readers will guess the ending twist fairly easily, but its still nicely enough done.

The other Silverberg/Garrett collaboration is rather more routine. In "Battle for the Thousand Suns" Dane Regan is the exiled son of the rightful King of Jillane, one star of the Empire of a Hundred Kings, which controls a thousand or so stars in a globular cluster. The kicker is that humans in this cluster have mutated so that certain males, who have become the nobility, can kill or injure non-nobles by thought. Dane returns to the cluster in disguise and becomes a successful member of the space navy, but attracting too much notice as an up-and-comer is dangerous, and he finds himself the target of duels and nefarious attempts at his life. So he disappears again and returns as a playboy, romancing the daughter of his hated rival, who is poised to become the new Emperor. The end of the story turns partly on a "tradition" pulled rather out of the authors' hat, and partly on a twist about the nature of the new Emperor that seems to in retrospect support the idea of this oppressive nobility ruling the Cluster. On the whole, a competently executed but very ordinary story.

Retro-Review of Imaginative Tales, July 1957

This issue features four stories by some combination of Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg, who, as I recall, were working together at the time, producing reams of fiction for the likes of Hamling. They often collaborated, and they shared pseudonyms. These stories are "Devil's World", by Garrett alone, "Hot Trip for Venus", listed on the TOC as by "Ralph Burke", bylined Garrett above the story's text, and possibly by both Silverberg and Garrett, though Silverberg doesn't remember -- perhaps it was Garrett alone; "Pirates of the Void", as by "Ivar Jorgensen", in this case, says Silverberg, was written by Garrett alone (the "Jorgensen" pseudonym was actually Paul Fairman's, but Hamling thought it was a house name, and to Fairman's distress, he used to slap it on stories by the likes of Silverberg); and finally "The Assassin", by Silverberg alone.

They're mostly fairly weak, though I did like "The Assassin". This is about a man who invents a time machine in order to stop John Wilkes Booth from killing Lincoln. The way his effort (inevitably) fails is very logical. The other stories are all pretty formulaic adventure, and each is at least a twist short of real interest. "Pirates of the Void" is the best of these, I suppose, about a sort of maintenance tech on an artificial satellite who happens to be their when pirates arrive. He has to hide, then find a way (unarmed) to subdue the criminals. I thought he had it a bit too easy ... "Hot Trip for Venus" probably has a more interesting setup, as a space pilot discovers that the spaceship line's owner and son are running drugs to the primitive inhabitants of Venus. He plans to return to Venus and find proof -- but his pilot license is pulled, so he implausibly impersonates another pilot ... and then on Venus it's just a short jaunt into the woods and he runs across the bad guy. Again ... just too easy. Likewise "Devil's World", where a man sent to investigate suspected crime on Mercury is caught and forced to work on the sunside. Again, his eventual turning of the tables was just too easy. And, in all of these stories -- not that it matters, really -- the scientific notions are just silly.

Retro-Review of Infinity, January 1958

"Beyond Our Control" is Randall Garrett at close to his worst -- no trace of his wit, no particular interest to the conception. Yardgoods. It's about a communications satellite that suddenly goes off orbit. It's vital to restore it to the proper place, so after some terribly unconvincing discussions of how it might have had its orbit altered, a robot probe is sent up -- and they find something surprising -- an alien. As I said, really a weak story.

Retro-Review of Fantastic, January 1959

“The Price of Eggs”, by Randall Garrett, is fairly silly SF, not uncommon for Garrett, with a distinct sexual aspect, unusual perhaps in SF of that day.

It is set on a planet occupied by a very humanoid race, which therefore humans decide, magnanimously, not to terraform. They are trying to negotiate a deal for an anti-cancer drug (available from a local plant), when one of the diplomats gets himself involved with a local princess. The problem is, the local species, for all that they are very humanoid (and the women very pretty), are egg-layers. And not, obviously, interfertile with humans.

The man in question is forced to marry the princess he’s gotten involved with, and if he can’t ensure the succession in a fairly short time, well, he’ll be executed. (Because of course divorce is unthinkable for a royal woman.) A sharp young Lieutenant is given the job of extricating the foolish man, and he comes up with a (reasonably science-fictional) solution.

As I said, it’s kind of silly, and it goes on too long for its (negligible) substance, but it’s entertaining enough anyway. (As I have noted before, the title of the “King” of the alien species here is “Shann,” and Garrett doesn’t miss the opportunity to originate a horrible pun that Roger Zelazny repeated in Lord of Light.)

Retro-Review of Analog, July 1961

The opening novelette is Randall Garrett’s “A Spaceship Named McGuire” (15200 words). A troubleshooter is hired to solve two problems for Mr. Ravenhurst, a leading spaceship manufacturer. One problem is that his new model spaceship, controlled by an AI (named McGuire, rather tritely as an abbreviation for the model number), has a problem – the AI keeps going insane. The other problem is that his daughter is intractable, and needs a bodyguard to make sure she gets to finishing school.

That the two problems are related is not a surprise – alas, the rather sexist working out of things is not a surprise either. This story had promise for a while, but flattened horribly at the end.

Retro-Review of Fantastic, January 1962

“Hepcats of Venus” is the sort of thing Randall Garrett could (and often did) toss off fairly casually, or so it seems to me: mildly amusing, a bit topical (if in this case by the time of publication probably a tad out of date), not too concerned with plausibility either as to scientific details or plot. Lord and Lady Curvert are supposedly British aristocrats but in reality they are Galactic Observers, charged with protecting the nascent Earth society from themselves and from nasty extraterrestrials. They notice that a jazz trio is making a splash at the Venus Club in New York… and that the the instruments seem to be part of the players’ bodies. Of course this all turns out to be a dastardly plot by shapechanging aliens…

Retro-Review of F&SF, February 1966

"Witness for the Persecution" is a fast-moving story in which a businessman attempting to introduce anti-gravity, and hence cheap space travel, is targeted for assassination by the Powers That Be -- but a mysterious visitor saves him almost against his will. Enjoyable enough, if minor.

Birthday Review: Stories of Philip K. Dick

Birthday Review: Stories of Philip K. Dick

Today would have been Philip K. Dick's 91st birthday. Here's a look at some of his short fiction, based on my reading or rereading them in old copies of SF magazine.

Retro-Review of Space Science Fiction, May 1953

Finally, "Second Variety" is justly one of the best known of Philip Dick's early stories. It was also made into a recent movie (Screamers (1996)). The US and Russia are fighting an endless war. Everyone is underground or on the Moon, and the war is continued by the means of robots, shaped like wounded soldiers, little boys, beautiful women, etc. The idea is that people try to help the wounded soldier, for instance, and it blows up after a certain time. The story turns on the real identity of a "Second Variety" of robots, which in the end is (inevitably) autonomous robots that will continue the war on their own, after having killed all the humans.

Retro-Review of Space Science Fiction, September 1953

The novella is another strong story, Philip K. Dick's "The Variable Man". It's very long indeed at about 26,000 words. In 2136, the Earth is engaged in a war with the Centaurian Empire, an ancient alien empire, somewhat decadent but still powerful, that is keeping Earth hemmed in from any expansion to the stars. The Security Commissioner, Reinhart, is looking for an excuse to launch an attack on Proxima Centauri to resolve the war, but he is waiting for the "SRB computers" to decide that the odds favor Earth. Finally, a promised super weapon, based on a failed FTL drive design, is almost ready. It will destroy the Centaurian base planet, making a human victory likely. He orders the attack, but two problems occur. First, it seems the delicate wiring of the bomb's circuitry is causing problems. Second, a time travel project has mistaken taken a man from the early 20th Century to 2136. The introduction of this "variable man" into the SRB computers' calculations makes reliable statistical estimation impossible. Reinhart tries to capture, then kill, the man, by the most over the top means imaginable. But the man is a "fix-it" guy, with an instinctual ability to sense how to repair machines, and the leader of the bomb project decides he needs the "variable man" to fix his bomb. Remember what the bomb was originally designed for? That kind of tells you how the story ends -- in some ways an oddly optimistic ending for Dick, after a story that rather cynically described humans acting mostly very badly.

Retro-Review of Science Fiction Stories #1, 1953

And Philip K. Dick's "The Eyes Have It" (1400 words) is a little bit of amusing paranoia about a man who realizes that aliens are invading masquerading as humans. How does he know -- basically, by reading a bunch of passages from Thog's Masterclass, in which body parts are shown to be able to do implausible things, as in the phrase "the eyes slowly roved about the room". Surely only an alien could send its eyes roving?

Retro-Review of Cosmos, July 1954

Dick's "Of Withered Apples" is a sad little story, to my mind somewhat uncharacteristic of Dick, a fantasy about a young wife who feels called to a withered apple tree, and what happens when she eats one of the apples.

Retro-Review of Galaxy, October 1954

The opening novelette is Philip K. Dick's "A World of Talent" (14800 words). This is an interesting story that is almost really good but falls just short. It's set on a colony of Proxima Centauri. The colony is dominated by Psis with various talents, though there are also "Normals" and "Mutes". The colony wants to be independent of Earth, partly because on Earth Psis are persecuted. The problem is, the Psis on the colony are ready to start persecuting Normals: and everybody persecutes Mutes. The protagonist is a Precog, Curt, trapped in a loveless marriage to another Precog. Their child, intended to be a super-Psi, instead seems to be a Mute, and to be obsessed with beings no one can see. Curt is one Psi who wants to work for a tolerant society, but the other Psis, including his wife, see that as treason to their class. But Curt has found a woman on another planet who as a new power -- she is an "Anti-Psi". He sees this an inevitable, and something to be encouraged, but of course his fellows want Anti-Psis eliminated. Moreover, Curt has fallen in love with her. The resolution turns on the very strange power that Curt's son turns out to have. It's kind of frustrating: the story seems very close to brilliance, but just doesn't quite work. Part of the problem is that I can't believe very easily in Precognition, and especially Curt's son's power is difficult to describe or represent. '

Retro-Review of Fantastic, February 1964

The most significant novelet, surely, is Philip K. Dick’s “Novelty Act.” This story mixes a strange set of notions, all very Dickian — the country is ruled, it seems, by an immortal First Lady (Nicole) who takes a new husband as President every four years, based partly on talent shows. There are also papoolas, natives of Mars, that everyone loves, perhaps because of their telepathic powers. And a jalopy dealer named Loony Luke with a plan to send people to Mars. And the central character, Ian Duncan, an aging resident of the Abraham Lincoln apartments, who plays classical music for a jug band and hopes to win a talent contest and meet the First Lady. Pretty weird stuff, really, and very much of the Philip Dick flavor, but perhaps, I thought, more of an undeveloped idea that could have been a novel than a truly successful novelet.

Retro-Review of Amazing, July 1964

The third novelet is by another major writer, the most significant in this issue, "A Game of Unchance", by Philip K. Dick, concerns a colony planet visited by a traveling carnival. They have the usual rigged games, but it turns out one of the colony boys has psi powers -- and he can detect that the carnies are using their psi to rig the games. He is able to overcome their efforts and win some valuable prizes -- but they turn out to be booby-trapped. The colony is in danger ... and then another carnival comes, with perhaps just what they need. And the same deal applies, and the young boy realizes he can outwit this carnival psi individual as well -- the colony is saved. But ... isn't it a bit convenient that his powers are always just enough to beat the carnival psi powers?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Capsules of two novels by John Sladek

This would have been John Sladek's 82nd birthday. Alas, he died in 2000, only 62. Last year I reviewed his novel Bugs in this space, and I have also reviewed his novel Tik-Tok. I'll post links to those reviews below, but in addition, here are some very short capsule reviews of two more of his novels.

Review of Bugs

Review of Tik-Tok

The Reproductive System

When John Sladek died, I realized I had never read any of his novels, so I dug out a copy of The Reproductive System that I'd had for a while, and figured I'd read it.  (This novel was called Mechasm when Ace published it in the US: the British title is much much better, and makes much more sense.) This is a satirical novel about a company in Nevada (or maybe Utah) which hires a mad scientist who designs self-reproducing, intelligent machines.\ Soon the machines escape and threaten to take over the world.  The plot isn't the main interest, of course.  Indeed, the book isn't that well structured: there is an almost wholly unconnected subplot about Americans and Russians spying on French efforts to launch a rocket to the moon.  But though some of the humor is dated, most of it is still pretty incisive.  Parts of the book are laugh out loud funny, while also being observant and effectively satirical.  Definitely a worthwhile read.

Black Aura

John Sladek wrote a couple of mysteries in the 1970s, featuring as a detective an American living in London, Thackeray Phin.  (Sladek himself was at that time an American living in London, though I believe he moved back to Minnesota for the last several years of his life.)  I bought Black Aura, I believe the second of the series.  (I am not sure there were any more than two: the first book, I think, was Invisible Green.)  Thackeray decides to investigate a medium who is running a society called the Aetheric society (or something). He simply wishes to figure out her methods (which are conventional medium fraudulence), but while he is living with the society a couple of murders occur, which he ends up solving.  It's an OK read, and sometimes reasonably funny, but not nearly as funny as for example his SF novel Mechasm.  Plus, the plot is a bit implausible, and the solution to the murders is pretty clever, but as usual overcomplicated.  Good enough that I figure I'll try the other one, but nothing near as good as his remarkable SF satires.

Birthday Review: Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson (2009)

a review by Rich Horton

It strikes me about Julian Comstock that it's not very high-concept, which is a departure for Robert Charles Wilson, whose books are often built on quite striking SFnal ideas, such as the time-slowing barrier around Earth in Spin, or the weird reversion to prehistoric times of Darwinia. Julian Comstock, instead, has a fairly straightforward post-Collapse scenario. In the '50s a book like this would have been set after a nuclear war. Julian Comstock, instead, is set in the 22nd Century after an economic collapse caused at least in part by global warming. The United States, which now includes Canada, has devolved to essentially a religiously-dominated monarchy, though the "President" is still elected. The narrator is Adam Hazzard, ambiguously a member of the "leasing class". (American society has become formally divided into three classes: Aristos, leaseholders, and indentured laborers.) He lives on an estate in Athabaska, somewhere (I presume) in what is now western Canada but has become one of the 60 states of the U.S. His closest friend is Julian Comstock, the nephew of the President, sent to Athabaska to keep him out of sight of his Uncle, who is suspicious of any rivals, and who in fact had Julian's father executed when he seemed to be becoming too popular. Adam is an eager reader of boys adventure books, and indeed hopes to become a writer. (As it is clear he does, this book being purportedly his account of Julian's career.) Julian is also interested in books, but more particularly banned "Philosophy": that is to say, 20th and 21st Century science, now banned by the religious authorities.

The US is engaged in a protracted war with the "Dutch", who occupy Labrador. Adam and Julian end up conscripted into the Army, but Julian takes an assumed name to avoid his Uncle's attention. Much of the novel then follows their military career -- first in Montreal, then campaigns in Labrador. For Adam this is significant as he falls in love with a rather odd young woman, a singer, and gains her affection (ambiguously, perhaps) when he rescues her from her abusive brothers. Adam also meets a war reported who gives him advice on writing, meantime stealing Adam's firsthand accounts of battles and passing them off as his own work. This becomes particularly significant when Julian, in classic style, reveals his bravery and military brilliance -- and Adam's account becomes a bestseller, and they return to New York, to deal with Julian's Uncle.

The rest of the story concerns Julian's conflict with his tyrannical and insane Uncle, and his eventual plans for a better government. All this is complicated by his anti-religious attitudes, and by the enmity the established Church leaders have for him. Julian also becomes obsessed with bringing Philosophical ideas back, going so far as to sponsor the production of an adventure film about Charles Darwin. All this, of course, cannot end quietly.

I liked the novel a lot. Robert Charles Wilson is a wonderful writer. Adam and Julian are both interesting characters. Adam in particularly is almost absurdly naive, and that comes through in nearly every line of the book. Julian is more complicated, and his career, which in my brief synopsis looks clichedly heroic, is much more ambiguous -- and believable -- in Wilson's telling. It's a very fine addition to a really impressive corpus.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson turns 66 today. He's been one of the most consistently interesting SF novelists for over three decades, and he won the Hugo for Best Novel for Spin (2005). He's also won a Philip K. Dick Award, and a Campbell, and a few Auroras. Besides Spin I particularly liked his novel Darwinia (1998). He hasn't written as much short fiction, but that he has written has also been very impressive. Here's a set of my reviews of his short fiction.

From my summary of Original Anthologies from 2000

Of the novelettes, my clear favorite was "The Dryad's Wedding" by Robert Charles Wilson, from Star Colonies.  This is a sequel to his 1999 short novel Bios.  It deals with the colonization of the very "hostile" world featured in the novel, a couple of centuries later, and a young woman who has died and been revived.  She begins to sense the world trying to communicate with her -- Wilson's explanation for this is a bit mystical, definitely building on the mystical ending to Bios, but philosophically interesting.  And the resolution to the story is honest and sad.

Locus, March 2006

And the best story in FutureShocks is Robert Charles Wilson’s thought-provoking “The Cartesian Theater”, which finds a very appropriate way of speculating about machine rights, human identity, even the idea of a soul, in a well-framed and well-told story of a man in an ambiguously prosperous future telling his dead grandfather about a disgusting but legal staging of a simulated (or was it?) death.

Locus, January 2007

Robert Charles Wilson, in Julian: A Christmas Story, does very interesting work with what is again familiar material. In a way this is a story I’ve read, in one form or another, in many 50s magazines: a post-holocaust story, with an anti-science religious/political ruling party controlling the remnants of civilization, as a young man with heretical (i.e. pro-scientific) ideas bids to challenge the new orthodoxy. But the holocaust here is not nuclear but rather environmental, and the new political order is reflective of our contemporary politics. And the characters – primarily the narrator Adam and his aristo friend Julian, two boys about to be embroiled in an apparently ongoing war – are elegantly depicted. I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a longer story – I’d be glad to read it if so – or if the full “story” here is the subtly limned background and nicely hinted future – either way it is a wholly satisfying novella. [Indeed it did become a novel, and my review of that is posted at the link below:

Review of Julian Comstock]

Review of Fast Forward 1 (Locus, February 2007)

More solid work includes Robert Charles Wilson’s “YFL-500”, in which a not very successful artist who does not dream finds a way to create a great work of art when he gets access to another person’s dream (in a sense). Then he tracks down that person – leading to a wry ending. I particularly liked the nature of the art genre described.

Locus, April 2009

And then to Other Earths and Robert Charles Wilson, who offers a grim look at race relations in a US in which the Civil War was avoided, in “The Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe”. A white photographer accompanies a black historian trying to document the terrible events at a sort of work camp for freed black men that to us resembles the Nazi work camps. Wilson is as ever convincing and oblique, not settling for showing simply the horrible alternative history but showing us in the characters of the leads the way changed history affected real people.

Locus, January 2013

Finally, Gardner Dozois offers a first rate new anthology in audio form: Rip-Off!. The conceit is that each story begins with a famous first line, and goes on from there, presumably riffing on the story it's “ripping off”. The best two stories open and close the book. Robert Charles Wilson's “Fireborn” is based on a Carl Sandburg story. It's pastoral in mood, about a Onyx and Jasper, two “commoners” who encounter a fireborn “skydancer” – a woman who has lived multiple lives, trying to earn “transit to the Eye of the Moon”. The story slowly reveals the nature of the “fireborn”, and the ambitions of Onyx and Jasper, as Jasper is lured to become an apprentice to the skydancer. This is excellent “posthuman” SF in which the posthumans are just as human as the “commoners”.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Birthday Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt

Today is Tim Pratt's birthday. Last year on this date I published a set of reviews of his short fiction. Here's a look at his first novel. I'm tempted to say "He got better", which is true, but also unfair to this book, which is still quite enjoyable.

Birthday Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt

A review by Rich Horton

About The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl I think I can say, as I did with another novel: "this is a very promising first novel, and well worth reading, but also quite clearly a first novel." This book is Urban Fantasy, despite not being set in Seattle or Minneapolis or Newford. That said, it has an original flavor: the fantastical elements have an Old West manifestation.

The protagonist is Marzi (short for Marzipan: hippie parents), night manager of a coffee shop in Santa Cruz called Genius Loci. Marzi is an artist, having dropped out of UC Santa Cruz after a nervous breakdown a couple years previously. She draws a fairly successful underground comic called The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, about a woman who travels to a fantasy Old West and confronts weird villains. Her best friend is Lindsay, a talented bisexual artist still at UCSC. Lindsay keeps trying to set her up with men, but Marzi is skittish just now, after the breakdown. Then a new young man moves in above the coffee shop. Jonathan is studying Garamond Ray, a modestly famous artist who painted the walls of the coffee shop before disappearing during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Lindsay pounces immediately, and perhaps surprisingly has a bit of success pushing Marzi at him.

But at the same time the very strange artist Beej seems to go completely nuts, and starts talking about the Earthquake god. And another couple of artists, Dennis and his ex-girlfriend Jane, act oddly too. In particular Jane seems suddenly to be made of mud, and she seems to want to kill Marzi. All this seems perhaps connected with a locked storeroom, entering which precipitated Marzi's breakdown a couple years previously. That storeroom has an unknown Garamond Ray mural ... which means Jonathan is very interested.

So: Jonathan wants to get into the storeroom. Marzi is afraid, and especially afraid to let anyone else in. Dennis and Jane and Beej are starting to act very strange indeed ... Of course, Marzi will go in, and find a door -- a door that leads inevitably to a version of the Old West that is all too much like her comic. In particular, it holds a chaotic "god" called the Outlaw, who desperately wants to escape back to the real world, and do what he does best: destroy. So when Jonathan lets his curiosity get the best of him (with a little help ...) things go pear-shaped.

And it's up to Marzi to confront her fears, and to learn how to confront the Outlaw in the appropriate manner. Which of course she does, though not without some personal and general cost.

My main problem here was an ending that seemed abrupt and just a bit pat. Yet at the same time several innocent people are killed -- but somehow we are spared emotional involvement with any of the killings -- the characters who die are essentially redshirts, and I felt this a distinct failing. I also felt that the characterization of the villains -- well, Dennis in particular -- was rather lazy. Dennis is a cliche, and not a very interesting cliche.

But as ever when I cite what's wrong with a book I feel I'm overstating things. (Well, not "as ever", but in this case anyway.) The novel is a very engaging read. The good guys, Marzi and Lindsay in particular, are very well portrayed. It's well-written, and the magical elements are well-imagined. It's a good book -- a good first novel, and certainly promising good things to come.

Review: The Chaos Function, by Jack Skillingstead

The Chaos Function, by Jack Skillingstead

Houghton Mifflin (John Joseph Adams Books), 2019

a review by Rich Horton

I've enjoyed Jack Skillingstead's short fiction for a long time, but for whatever reason (mostly that I can't keep up with the SF field's novels that well) I hadn't yet read one of his novels. So when I saw a copy of his latest, The Chaos Function, at Sally Kobee's table in the Archon dealers' room, I figured it was time to remedy that situation.

The protagonist of the novel is Olivia Nikitas, a reporter addicted to what she calls "the Disaster" -- the ongoing crisis always present somewhere in our world. The book is set in the very near future (2029), and as it opens, Olivia is in Aleppo, shortly after the Syrian civil war has come to a shaky conclusion. She's ready to investigate a rumor of a torture cell in the Old City, and she ends up there with her Syrian guide and her current boyfriend, Brian, who is getting a little too important to her for her own comfort. And things go pear-shaped -- the guide and Brian are killed, and in the basement of an old madrassa, Olivia sees an old man die -- and something very strange happens. Something transfers from the old man to Olivia, and she has a vision of a slightly altered future, in which Brian survives. And that turns out to be the case -- only Olivia remembers anything different.

But otherwise the world is suddenly going even more to hell than usual. An apparently weaponized virus has been released, and a pandemic is sweeping the world (except, suspiciously, Russia.) Olivia and Brian return to her Seattle home. But Olivia, ever suspicious, realizes she's being followed ... and before long she's been kidnapped, and ends up in rural Idaho, a captive in a place called Sanctuary. Here she learns that she is now in possession of the ability to change the past -- an ability passed through a series of "Shepherds" since roughly the time of Christ. These Shepherds, now sheltered by a creepy cult-like organization, have tried to steer history onto relatively optimal paths ever since, though they are riven even now by a faction that insists on very conservative changes, and another faction that wants to do more radical things (including using the timeline changes for personal enrichment.) Now Olivia is the new "Shepherd", unless she is killed ... and anyway as a woman she's ineligible. Moreover, this latest crisis, the released bioweapon, may have resulted from her accidental alteration of events to save Brian's life.

Olivia manages to escape, with the help of a couple of discontented Sanctuary members. She's none too sure about the Shepherd rules, either -- there are hints that in the "past" they've not exactly chosen the most beneficial paths. (And "beneficial" is of course a fraught term.) What follows is a desperate chase across half the country and back, and then a return to Syria, as more and more people succumb to the bioweapon. Olivia of course is tempted to change the recent past again and again -- and the results seem more disastrous all the time ...

The endgame is in its broad outlines discernible from the start. The central philosophical questions -- what are the ethics of changing history? who does it benefit? how can it be controlled? -- are interesting, but all lead to a simple answer. In a way, this is disappointing to an SF reader: we have a tendency to want control, to want a path to utopia, to make things right. And Skillingstead wisely dodges this sort of resolution. The other key arc is the characters. Olivia remains interesting throughout -- she's a sharply portrayed protagonist. The other main characters, even Brian, don't quite come into the same focus (though a variety of minor characters convince in their short stays.) Olivia's personal journey is pretty affecting, however, if perhaps her final steps seem a tad pat.

This is a strong novel with its eye usefully aimed right at the current Disaster, outside the US. (The Disaster within our borders is oddly absent -- perhaps things have lurched positively between 2020 and 2029!) It's exciting, even gripping, throughout. I'm glad I finally got to one of Jack's novels.

(Mild disclaimer -- Jack and I once worked at the same company, though half the country apart, and we certainly didn't know each other. (We've met since, a few times.) I don't think that really means all that much, but it's always increased my interest in his fiction.)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

Books Considered: The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

I run into Rachel Neumeier fairly often at local conventions (she lives in outstate Missouri.) She's written a number of fantasy novels, for Orbit and Saga and other houses, YA and adult both. She gave me a copy of her first novel, The City in the Lake, after the first panel we shared, at Archon quite some time ago. Here's what I wrote about that back then.

It's a YA novel, a fantasy, in general outline a fairly conventional YA fantasy, but quite well done, and achieving real beauty at times. Some of it reminded me a bit of Le Guin, particularly the first Earthsea books, not in plot in any way, but rather something of the feel of the book. I liked it quite a bit, and I hope to see more from Neumeier.

It is set in a mostly peaceful kingdom. The King has two sons. The elder, called the Bastard, is the son of a mysterious woman who came to the City, more or less seduced the King, and then left after bearing his child. The younger is the son of the Queen, a much younger woman who married the King years later. The younger son is of course the heir, and he is widely beloved. The Bastard is instead widely feared, but it seems not for good reasons -- he is in fact an honest man, and very capable, and has no wish to supplant his half-brother as heir -- but people just assume he does. Then the younger son disappears, and no one can find him, and things in the Kingdom start to go wrong.

In a pleasant village remote from the central City, a girl named Timou grows up. Her father, Kapoen, is a wizard, a rather powerful wizard for such a small village, but he is accepted, and does well by the village. Timou never knew her mother, however. She grows up happily enough, learning from her father how to be a wizard, and making friends with the village children, but somehow remaining rather separate. When a young man, Jonas, begins to court her, she puts him off, though she likes him, because she has learned from Kapoen that wizarding and marriage do not mix. Then one spring, as Timou turns 17, disaster strikes: the animals fail to bear, trees won't bear fruit, and Timou's just married friends have stillborn children. The villagers learn that the Crown Prince has disappeared, and of course it is assumed that his disappearance is the reason for the disasters ... Kapoen decides he must travel to the City to help the court wizards find out what has happened, but he charges Timou to stay put.

Of course, after a while she decides she must go to the City as well ... to look for the Prince, or for her father, or for her mother perhaps? She must first travel through the strange forest between her and the City, and that is a strange journey indeed. Then she comes to the City, and also its parallel City, in the Lake, and finds something quite unexpected there. Meanwhile the King has also disappeared, and the Queen blames the Bastard ... And Jonas follows Timou, against her express instructions, and he finds that the path through the forest is different for all different people. Of course, all these people are key to the eventual solution, which is nicely handled, and resolved well, not without loss, but not sadly.

The magic in this book often seems arbitrary, but in quite effective ways. It comes across as magic, not just a different sort of science. The worldbuilding is undeniably rather thin -- at times the world seems to consist only of city/village/forest ... but this isn't a novel that rests on worldbuilding. It rests rather on the characters, and on a little familial tangle, and on magic -- and one some quite nice set pieces, some quite dramatic scenes. Very nice work.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Jo Walton

Today is my friend Jo Walton's birthday. In her honor, then, here's a briefish collection of my reviews of some of her short fiction. I wish there could be more, but she is primarily a novelist, and an excellent one. But her short fiction is excellent too -- and there is a collection, Starlings.

Locus, August 2006

Best I think is Jo Walton’s “Down to Earth” (Absolute Magnitude), in which a somewhat naïve young woman from a space habitat travels to Earth to capture squirrels. Only she doesn’t know much about squirrels – or about Earth.

Review of The Best from Jim Baen's Universe from Locus, October 2007

There are other strong stories – Jo Walton’s “What Would Sam Spade Do?” is an amusing and sharp variation on the idea of cloning Jesus.

Locus, April 2009

Jo Walton’s “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” ( is a brief pendant to her Farthing novels, set in the U. S. and quietly showing that it shared England’s darkness.

Locus, July 2009

But the clear standout in Firebirds Soaring is Jo Walton’s “Three Twilight Tales”, which begins with a girl making a man out of “two rhymes and a handful of moonshine” and continues into a tavern, where three separate but closely linked tales unfold, leading with retrospective inevitability to a king in search of a queen who finds something perhaps better.

Locus, May 2014

Jo Walton's “Turnover” (Lightspeed, March) is a strong generation ship story from a rather obscure recent source, a 2013 chapbook published by the UK convention Novacon.

Locus, October 2014

Jo Walton also contributes a strong story to in August, “Sleeper”, in which Essie, a biographer in an all too plausible dystopian corporatist future, creates a simulation of her latest subject, Matthew Corley, a fairly famous televison director who had a couple of secrets – he was gay, and he was a Soviet “sleeper” agent. The simulation is ostensibly to help Essie understand her subject better, but the story subtly and almost sadly suggests another reason for her creation, in a dark 21st Century, of a computer simulation of someone who wanted a better world in the 20th Century.

Locus, June 2017 in April features a Jo Walton story with a really absorbing central idea. In “A Burden Shared”, technology exists that allows one person to take on another’s pain. The main character, Penny, and her ex-husband take turns sharing their daughter’s pain – she has an incurable condition resulting in constant pain; and without this help her successfully career might be impossible. (Other uses of the tech are mentioned – apparently devoted fans of celebrities clamor to take their idols’ pain for a time – a nice touch, I thought.) But when Penny wakes up Ann’s pain seems worse than usual – and that points up a real issue with the notion: pain does have uses – and, also, if you are sharing someone else’s pain, what about your own? And indeed Penny soon learns that she has cancer – is it possible she missed the signs because she confused that pain for Ann’s pain? The interesting central idea aside, the story is also an effective look at Penny’s emotional landscape.