Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of James Sallis

James Sallis was born December 21, 1944. His day job was as a respiratory therapist, but he's better known as a writer. His novels have been almost all crime novels -- the Lew Griffin books in particular, as well as Drive, which became a movie starring Ryan Gosling. He got his start writing SF, however, and early on was particularly associated with the New Wave -- he published regularly in Orbit, and served for a time as co-editor of New Worlds. His short -- often very short -- fiction has been compared -- sensibly, it seems to me -- with another "New Wave", the French Nouvelle Vague cinema. He has continued to publish short work in SF magazines over the years, some of it truly excellent -- notably, to me, "Dayenu", from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet in 2018, which I think one of the best (and most overlooked) novelettes of the past decade. Here's a look at some of his fiction -- recent work I've reviewed for Locus, and older work I wrote about less formally.

Orbit 6

"The Creation of Bennie Good" is James Sallis in a somewhat surrealistic mode, with the title character at dinner with a woman, trying to please her with an offer of his foot. There's more going on in this very short piece, but there's little I can say that will make much sense -- best just to read it.

Orbit 7

James Sallis' "Jim and Mary G" is a wrenching and somewhat mysterious story about a family, a mother and father (presumably the title characters) and their young son, it what seems a strangely empty city. I couldn't figure out what was going on for sure -- some kind of post-Apocalyptic environment -- but the mother and father have come to a decision about the child. Chilling, very sad.

Orbit 9

This volume of Orbit includes two very odd stories by James Sallis. I can't say I'm sure I understood either of them, but both are intriguing, well-written, experimental pieces. "Binaries" tells in several sections of the relationship of a man and a woman, or multiple men and multiple women, across years, across continents. "Only the Words are Different" is also about men and women. It's also very strange, and somewhat more comic, and vaguely science-fictional. It's hard to say much about these stories that makes sense, but they were worth reading.

F&SF, June 1971

"They Fly at Ciron", by Samuel R. Delany and James Sallis, is one of a rare set of stories -- collaborations that were later expanded to novels by only one of the collaborators. Other examples include "The Weakness of RVOG", by James Blish and Damon Knight, a 1949 novelette that became Blish's solo novel from 1958, VOR; and "Tomorrow's Children", Poul Anderson's first published story from 1947, a collaboration with F. N. Waldrop, which became Anderson's novel Twilight World in 1961. (Less certain is the novel The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey, which is an expansion of the novella "No More Stars", by the pseudonymous "Charles Satterfield", often attributed to del Rey with Frederik Pohl.) Delany expanded this novelette to the novel They Fly at Çiron in 1993, in an edition which includes two additional stories, "Ruins" and "Return to Çiron". 

"They Fly at Ciron" is in a way a standard sort of fantasy adventure. Ciron is a peaceful land, suddenly subject to invasion by the warmongers of Myetra. The military leader of the invasion is Handman Kire, himself a victim of Myetra's expansionism. On the way to the invasion, Kire, revolted by the cruelty of his Myetran prince, Nactor, goes off by himself to cool down, and encounters Rahm, a Cironian, and happens to save Rahm from a threat from a Winged One. Rahm returns to Ciron, and though warned of the danger of the Myetrans, cannot believe they would attack his peaceful people. Of course they do, and Rahm flees, ending up with the Winged Ones, saving one of their princes from a spider creature -- but returns to Ciron, determined to resist the Myetrans -- a resistance only made possible by the help of people from outside peaceful Ciron -- a visiting bard, a Winged One, and, eventually, Kire. There's nothing much really new her, but it's very well done, and I liked it a lot.

Orbit 11

Orbit regular James Sallis' contribution this time is "Doucement, S'il Vous Plait", a quite delightfully wistful, even mournful, story told from the point of view of a letter, which is forwarded and returned and remailed all over the world ... by the end we sense that this is a sort of metaphorical treatment of a failed relationship. I think it may be my favorite early Sallis story.

Orbit 13

James Sallis contributes "My Friend Zarathustra", an intriguing short-short about a man who has lost his wife to his friend Zarathustra ... of course there is more going on, and like Sallis' other Orbit pieces, I'm not sure I fully followed it but it was fun and intriguing.

Review of Leviathan 3

"Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" – to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only – or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us. 

Locus, July 2018

Even better is a remarkable long story by James Sallis, “Dayenu” (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Spring). It opens with the narrator doing an unspecified but apparently criminal job, and then fleeing the house he was squatting in, and meeting an old contact for a new identity. Seems like a crime story – and Sallis is, after all, primarily a crime novelist. But details of unfamiliarity mount, from the pervasive surveillance to a changed geography, then to the realization that the rehab stint the narrator mentioned right at the start was a rather more extensive rehab than we might have thought. Memories of wartime service are detailed, and two partners in particular – a woman named Fran or Molly, a man named Merrit Li. Page by page the story seems odder, and the destination less expected. The prose is a pleasure too – with desolate rhythms and striking images. Quite a work, and not like anything I’ve recently read. 

Locus, May 2020

Interzone features a novelette by the great James Sallis in the March-April issue. As common for Sallis, “Carriers” begins in a strange place and ends up somewhere completely different (though still plenty strange.) The opening describes a brief skirmish in a decaying or collapsing near future US, followed by a few encounters between a doctor desperately trying to save the people he can, even (or especially?) those on the wrong side of what now counts as law, and in this case specifically including the very young man who was hurt in the first section. Then we move decades in the future, to another odd encounter between the doctor and the man he had saved long ago, with a mysterious sort of ghost present as well. It’s simply differently powerful – but very powerful – in a way I’m coming to associate with Sallis.

Locus, July 2020

Analog continues to morph into a new Analog – true to its tradition, still full of near-future stories of planetary exploration and colonization, for example – but open to writers I’d not have expected to see. For example, the May-June issue includes a story by James Sallis (Sallis in the Analog mafia! Will wonders never cease?): “Net Loss”, a sneakily very dark short-short about a man who is arrested due to evidence from his “smart” TV.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Birthday Review: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

a brief review by Rich Horton

The English novelist Ford Madox Ford was born with the rather enormous string of names Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer on December 17, 1873, so this is the 147th anniversary of his birth. I assume all the extra names were a family tradition of some sort, and apparently he was always called Ford. Early novels were published under the name H. Ford Hueffer, later Ford M. Hueffer or Ford Madox Hueffer. After World War I he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford because Hueffer sounded too German. His first novel was published in 1892. He published three novels written with Joseph Conrad. His most famous works by far are The Good Soldier and the Parade's End series of four books. He is also remembered for an historical trilogy about Catherine Howard (the Fifth Queen trilogy) and for an SF book (of sorts), Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, about a man who goes back to Medieval times. He died in 1939.

I wrote this piece about The Good Soldier a couple of decades ago upon reading it. It's brief, really not very substantial, but the novel has only grown in my memory, so I figured I'd go ahead and repost it. The only other novel of his I've read is Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (in both versions, the original from 1911 and the 1935 revision), and I do plan to write about that book as well.

I had waited to read the book partly because I thought it would be a heavy-going tragedy.  I took the famous first sentence ("This is the saddest story I have ever heard.") literally.  (Indeed, Ford's original title for the book was The Saddest Story, but as I understand it his publisher felt that The Good Soldier would be a better title for a book published in wartime (it appeared in 1915.))

It turns out, of course, that, while The Good Soldier can hardly be called a happy book, it is a comedy.  A dark, rather bitter, rather sarcastic, comedy, and hardly funny ha-ha, but a comedy nonetheless.  It gives one pause to think how much of the major English and Irish fiction of the 20th century is comedy.  Ulysses.  All of Flann O'Brien.  A Dance to the Music of Time.  Kingsley Amis (and of course Martin Amis.)  Muriel Spark.  Evelyn Waugh.  Henry Green.  Even Orwell, sometimes.  Penelope Fitzgerald. I suppose perhaps I am picking and choosing examples to support my point.  And I'm not so sure this applies to American novels.  But I do think a point can be made that the major mode of the English novel in the 20th Century is comic.

Anyway, The Good Soldier tells the story of two rich couples in the years leading up to World War I, an American couple, John Dowell (the narrator) and his wife Florence, and a British couple, Edward Ashburnham ("The Good Soldier") and his wife Leonora.  Both spend the years 1902-1914 or so on the Continent, because allegedly Edward and Florence have "hearts": that is, they are of questionable health and need to stay at various Continental spas, and need not to travel by sea.  The joke, of course, is that their heart problems actually have to do with their sexual appetites.  Both Edward and Florence are serial adulterers, and inevitably strike up a relationship, of which Leonora is aware but John Dowell, in many ways a foolish and pathetic figure, is unaware.  The two couples seem fast friends, and live utterly empty and pointless lives.

The novel is extremely well and complexly constructed, as Dowell tells and retells their history, from the point of view of each of the characters, and going back and forth in time.  We realize from the beginning that as Dowell tells his story Edward and Florence are dead, and he slowly gets around to telling about the precipitating events, involving "the girl", as she is called, Nancy Rufford, a quasi-niece of the Ashburnhams, which result in the destruction of the carefully maintained arrangements the four have lived in.  It's indeed a striking and remarkable book, and a very well done portrayal of a pointless way of life, and four quite unpleasant characters.  The humor is mostly sarcastic and understated, though there are a few horrifying set-pieces. The impact by the end is quite profound. I consider it one of the great novels of the 20th Century.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Birthday Review: Territory, by Emma Bull

Birthday Review: Territory, by Emma Bull

a review by Rich Horton

I wrote this review for Fantasy Magazine when Emma Bull's (to date) last novel, Territory, was published, in 2007. Bull made -- and deserved -- a big splash when her first few novels (War for the Oaks, Falcon, Bone Dance, and Finder) came out, in the late '80s and early '90s. Since then she has written fairly little -- a collaboration with Steven Brust, one with her husband Will Shetterly, and contributions to the intriguing "web serial" Shadow Unit; plus this novel. I've enjoyed all her work, particularly Falcon, which is imperfectly constructed by which pushes all my buttons. 

Emma Bull is one of those writers about whom my main complaint is that they don’t write enough. Her last novel, Freedom and Necessity (with Stephen Brust) appeared fully a decade ago. So I was delighted to see Territory on bookstore shelves this summer.

This is a fantasy set in the Old West, indeed, in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, in the months leading up to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Bull focuses on three characters. Mildred Benjamin is a young widow making an independent life for herself as a newspaperwoman and as a writer of early “pulp” Western stories. Jesse Fox is a horse trainer, previously from San Francisco, who has wandered into Tombstone on the way to Mexico – or so he thinks. And Doc Holliday – well, we know who Doc Holliday is: a dentist, a card player, a Southerner, and a friend of the controversial Wyatt Earp.

Through the eyes of these characters we learn the dicey political situation in Tombstone. Much of the trouble is centered on Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Wyatt wants to be Sheriff, but has no formal position. Virgil is City Marshal. And there no account brother Morgan is on the other side, more or less, and as the novel opens he has just participated in an attempted stagecoach robbery that left two people dead. Doc Holliday manages to create an alibi for Morgan, but in the process becomes a suspect himself. Over the next few months tensions rise between the townspeople, the Earps, and the cowboys, some of them rustlers, who live outside of town – people like the McLaury brothers, John Ringo (supposedly an ancestor of the SF writer of that name), and the Clantons. And the truth about the stage robbery becomes fuzzy as the main suspects all meet violent deaths before they can be arrested.

All this is for the most part historical record. What makes this story a story is the personal experience of the main characters. Mildred is the most engaging, the best depicted. As a woman, she has a different view of the conflict, especially once she befriends the Earps’ wives. And her budding career as a reporter gives her a still different angle. Jesse Fox, meanwhile, has his own secret, one he is loath to admit to himself. He can do magic. His friend Chow Lung, a Chinese doctor, urges him to accept his abilities. And in so doing, he realizes that there are other magic users in Tombstone – including very likely both Wyatt Earp and at least one of Earp’s enemies. Finally, Doc Holliday is probably the least well realized main character – perhaps because he is historical. His viewpoint serves mostly as an inside look at Wyatt Earp’s “camp”.

At this level the book follows Jesse’s arrival, his investigation, with Chow Lung, of the murder of a Chinese prostitute, and his subsequent realization that the girl was a victim of the political eddies in Tombstone. Meanwhile Mildred moves from typesetter to reporter at the Nugget as she gets interested in the nasty doings of a mining company. At the same time she is romantically drawn to both Tom McLaury and Jesse Fox. And her knowledge of the situation of the Earp women puts her squarely in the anti-Earp camp. Meanwhile Doc Holliday is trying to escape Earp’s orbit, urged by his common law wife Kate. But Earp’s hold – magical, perhaps? – seems to prove too strong.

The book is quite a delightful read. Mildred and Jesse are engaging protagonists, if, as I mentioned, Doc Holliday is a bit thinner. The fantastical element is modest but well-integrated and well portrayed. I had just one major issue: as the end approached, I realized that the remaining pages were not possibly enough to contain the actual gunfight. And, indeed, the book rather suddenly stops – at a not unreasonable point, with certain crucial information just revealed, but not, it turns out, at the end of the story. Yes – once again we have a book that is only Part 1 of a series (of only two books, I believe) – with absolutely no indication of this fact in the book, or on the cover, or anywhere unless you poke around the author’s web page. I will certainly be happy to read the conclusion to this story – but it would have been nice to know going in that Territory is only the first half. [That's what I wrote in 2007, but no sequel has eventuated -- perhaps none was ever planned.]

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding/An Integrated Man, by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding/An Integrated Man, by Julia Strachey

a review by Rich Horton

Julia Strachey was born in India in 1901, the daughter of Oliver Strachey -- and Oliver Strachey, a civil servant, was also Lytton Strachey's older brother. They moved back to England 6 years later, and Strachey's young life was further ruffled by her parents' divorce a few years later. She became sort of multiply a kind of second generation Bloomsburyite -- not only was she Lytton Strachey's niece, but her father's second wife, Ray Costelloe (a mathematician/engineer and a major figure in the suffrage movement) was Virginia Woolf's sister-in-law (extended). She began writing occasional short stories, and in 1932 published a short novel, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, that was very well-received at the time and has retained its reputation, having been reprinted as recently as 2009 by Persephone Books, and having been adapted (not terribly successfully, it would seem) into a film in 2012. She never did write regularly, it seems, and her only other novel appeared in 1951 as The Man on the Pier. It was reprinted along with Cheerful Weather For the Wedding in 1978, under Strachey's preferred title, An Integrated Man. Strachey died a year later; and a few years after that her lifelong friend Frances Partridge assembled the fragments of autobiography she had left behind with additional material by Partridge as Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge. (Frances Partridge, sometimes called "The Last of the Bloomsbury Set", was an interesting figure herself, living to just a few weeks short of her 104th birthday in 2004.)

So, a curiously sparse bibliography. Her stories (and some poetry) don't seem well-regarded, but her novels (especially the first) and the strange memoir are still remembered. I had not heard of her until recently, but the novels looked interesting, and writers of the first half of the 20th Century are always worth a look (for me), so I found a used copy of the 1978 Penguin omnibus of the two novels.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is really only novella length, perhaps 23,000 words. It takes place over just a few hours, on the day of the wedding of Dolly Thatcham to Owen Bigham. They are being married from the Thatchams' country house near Malton, which is a town that also features in An Integrated Man. (I suspect this Malton is not the real Malton in North Yorkshire, because this town seems close to the sea, while the real Malton is about 20 miles away from it.) There is not much in the way of plot (though over time some secrets do surface) -- the story is confined to the house, and to the actions of various family members, servants, and an ex-boyfriend of the bride. 

It's a satirical piece of writing, though in a more affectionate than cutting way. The various characters each get a look-in, enough that we know them a bit. Dolly seems perhaps a bit unsure of her coming nuptials, or perhaps just nervous ... she takes forever to get ready, and gets drunk in the process. Her sister Kitty is worried about being thought provincial and perhaps rather overcomplicated. Young Tom is furious at his younger brother Robert for insisting on wearing hideous socks, mostly because he's convinced a schoolmate will see them and the ridicule will be visited on Tom. Mrs. Thatcham is vague and rambling and insistent on the "cheerful weather" they are having for the wedding even though the day is windy and cold. And then there's Joseph, a former admirer of Dolly, who is pining and hiding from everyone else, hoping for an audience with Dolly. 

It's nicely done, funny, very well-observed. There is a secret lurking in the background, that is subtly hinted at, never stated but clear enough to the reader. It's a portrait of a certain pre-War English class, not necessarily obvious to Americans, I think ... I mean, they have servants! But they're not upper class.

An Integrated Man is a different sort of book. Much longer, for one thing -- 60,000 words or so. It also displays Strachey's close observation, a real gift for interesting description of largely mundane things. It's set in the country, at Flitchcombe Manor, the home of Ned Moon's friend Reamur. Ned is the viewpoint character, the "integrated man" of the title, for so he declares himself at the open, a man of about 40, fully satisfied with his life, happy, and eagerly approaching his next challenge, a school he is opening with his friend Aron. He and Aron are spending a few weeks with Reamur and Reamur's wife Gwen; using the the time to finish preparations for the schoole, whilst Ned also tutors Reamur and Gwen's son Co-Co. The house party is soon to be expanded when Aron's wife Marina and their daughter Violet arrive. And for the first third of so of the book nothing in particular happens -- we just see Ned going about his normal days, and we get a sense of Ned's character, and a look at the environs of Flitchcombe Manor and the nearby villages. This works oddly well, mostly because of Strachey's excellent eye for detailed descriptons of small things.

The other shoe drops when Marina shows up. For, somewhat mysteriously, Ned decides that he is in lust with her. Indeed, that he must "have" her. And so while similar things happen to what happened for the first 60 pages -- walks across the countryside, group conversations, shopping at the village -- these things are all filtered through Ned's haze of lust. All this time Ned is trying to avoid detection, and often avoiding the rest of the party entirely. A bit to the reader's surprise, after some time Marina makes some little hints that she is interested in Ned as well.

So the conclusion comes -- the end of summer is near, school ready to start, and the house party will be breaking up. Ned and Marina awkwardly make an arrangement for him to come up to London for a couple of days, while Aron is setting things up at school. All Ned's desires are ready to be satisfied ...

The resolution, then, is (as we perhaps expect) painful and embarrassing. Ned comes to realize that it is his friend and business partner, Aron, whom he will betray -- and for a woman that he lusts after but doesn't seem to much like. Ned is forced to hurt Marina terribly, and to leave himself frustrated. And to realize that he is perhaps really not such an "integrated man". 

I'm not sure how much I really liked this. I thought it was in many ways well done. I did believe in Ned -- of Marina and the others we get a much less full picture. And Ned's actions are, well, in the end proper (now as much as they were in 1936 when the book is set) though of course he should have acted (or not acted!) much earlier. As I've said, Strachey's paragraph by paragraph writing is strong, and her powers of description impressive. This book has moments of comedy, but it's not generally comic in the way Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is; and I suppose I felt that in the end the book was just a bit thin. But I'm not sorry to have read it; and I do think Strachey, though of course a very minor writer, still a writer worth continued attention.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Birthday Review: The Gifts of the Child Christ and other stories, by George MacDonald

I realized that it has been over a month since I posted on this blog. There are Reasons, of course (mostly 2020 reasons), but that's too long. So I figured I would post a birthday review today -- this one is something rather short I wrote about 20 years ago. (I hope to have "non-bestseller review" of a 20th Century woman writer, Julia Strachey, in a day or two.)

George MacDonald was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, 19th Century fantasist, a mentor to Samuel Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and a key influence on C. S. Lewis. He was born on 10 December 1824, and died in 1905. He grew up in the Congregationalist church and become a minister, but eventually lost his job partly because of his somewhat unconventional theological views. I had thought he was a Unitarian (inside joke: from the period before Unitarians became lovers of Mary Oliver's poetry), but now I can't find that he ever officially left the Congregationalist denomination -- that said, his theology seems to me more in tune with 19th century Unitarian/Universalist thinking. (It should be noted that the formal Unitarian church (at least in the US) was founded as a result of schism with the Congregationalists.) He moved to the Italian Riviera in the 1870s and did much of his writing there. Much of McDonald's fiction was essentially religious. I am particularly fond of his children's novels, At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie. He also wrote adult novels, most importantly Phantastes and Lilith.

He also wrote a lot of shorter fiction. The Gifts of the Child Christ and Other Stories, a collection of much of the best of his shorter works (selected by Glenn Edward Sadler). These include a couple of stories I have read before in solo editions: The Light Princess a very funny story about a princess with no gravity, either of spirit or physically; and The Golden Key, a lovely symbolic story about a boy and a girl and their long journey together. (My reviews of those two books can be found here.) Other highlights are The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess, a long story (35,000 words or so) about a spoiled princess and a spoiled shepherd's child and the efforts of an old wise woman to reform them; the title story, about how the daughter of a too serious man and his neglected young wife brings them together after their younger child is stillborn; "The Carasoyn" (or "The Fairy Fleet"), about a young man and his less than enjoyable involvement with a group of fairies and their queen; "The History of Photogen and Nycteris" (or "The Day Boy and the Night Girl"), about two babies kidnapped by an evil fairy, the boy brought up only in daylight, the girl only in darkness; and "The Cruel Painter" is a fine story about a painter who insisted on distorting his scenes to bring out the worst in their subjects, and the young man who falls in love with his daughter and comes to work as his apprentice.

There are quite a few more stories, most quite interesting, roughly evenly divided between fairy tales or fantasies and contemporary tales. Only very rarely does MacDonald moralize to the detriment of his stories, though his stories do quite often make moral points. (And quite explicitly Christian points.) Sadler has also selected quite a few period illustrations, many by Arthur Hughes, many from the original publications of the stories. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories (and capsule novel reviews) of R. A. Lafferty

 R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) was one of the most individual of SF writers. He began publishing in his mid 40s, with much of his early work appearing in Pohl’s magazines (Galaxy and If). His primary mode was the “tall tale”, and he attracted attention with the stories that appeared in his first collection, Nine Hundred Grandmothers, and then with his early novels, such as Past Master, Fourth Mansions, and The Devil is Dead. He appeared regularly in magazine and anthologies for a couple of decades, after which his work, which had either outworn its popular welcome or become too individual for a wide audience, mostly appeared in small press publications. I enjoyed a great many of his short stories, though I tended to find his novels a bit uneven, or a lot uneven.

Below are reviews of a few Lafferty stories I've reread recently in old magazine or anthologies, plus very short capsule reviews of two early novels.

If, September 1960

And finally, far and away the best story in this issue is Lafferty's "The Six Fingers of Time". I didn't recall the story though I've surely read it before: it was in Nine Hundred Grandfathers as well as a couple more anthologies. I would venture to say that it is the first really significant story Lafferty published. I liked it a great deal.

It opens with Charles Vincent waking up and discovering that time has nearly stopped for him. At first this is a source of puzzlement, then concern. But he does get caught up at work! Later he uses his advantage to pull silly tricks like undoing women's clothes (reminding me of Nicholson Baker's novel The Fermata). Eventually he learns a modicum of control over his power, and is approached by a shady man who seems to have much greater abilities in this area, and who talks of a link to extradigitalism (Vincent has a partial extra thumb). The end of the story is strong and mysterious, with references to the "smell of the pit", and a chance at much greater power -- but at what cost? And, of course, an eventual inevitable ending. Quite a fine piece of work.

Galaxy, April 1961

“All the People” is a very early Lafferty story. The voice is familiar, if not fully developed. The story is pretty good, if a bit more traditional than usual for Lafferty. It's about a person cruelly called “Tony the Tin Man”, he thinks because his father was a junk dealer. But in reality he's a “restricted person”, a cyborg attached to a computer, able to sense the feelings of all the people in the world, and so to detect if any are unexpected – perhaps invading aliens. And how would a “restricted person” react to an invasion?

Galaxy, August 1961

"Aloys" is a shortish Lafferty piece, decent and fairly characteristic work. The hero is a spectacular scientist, but naïve and poor and obscure, and when he is given an award he is subverted by a typically Laffertian secret society. It's best for its portrayal of Aloys himself. 

The Reefs of Earth

(Cover by Richard Powers)
The Reefs of Earth is an early R. A. Lafferty novel.  This is the first Lafferty I've read since reading Flann O'Brian, and I was struck by a certain resemblance.  I don't know if this is just some value of common Irish storytelling tradition, or if there is some direct influence.  This story tells of an extended family of alien "Pucas", marooned on the "Reefs of Earth", and how the children plot to avenge their parents.  Madly readable, but it doesn't really come off.  For one thing, almost all the characters are really quite unpleasant (by design, for sure).  And the cockeyed narrative logic, interesting by fits and starts, is just annoying on occasion.

Fourth Mansions

(Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon)
For all I'm reading lots of 1999 books, I'm trying not to neglect the past. I'd never read R. A. Lafferty's Fourth Mansions before, one of his best known novels.  It's a wild book, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has read Lafferty.  It's about a young newspaperman who stumbles on a multi-faceted plot to rule the world, involving "people" who live for many centuries, occasionally emerging to foil the hopes of normal humans, and another group of people who have learned how to psychically merge into a new sort of being, but who don't know how to use this power for good, and further people like the "patricks", who are vaguely supposed to be on the good side, I think. The newspaperman is pursued and hounded by several of these forces, and put in the madhouse, and so on.  Another young man gains certain powers and tries to overturn civilization for apparently good reasons.  It's all unstructured as heck, and sometimes boring, but sometimes weirdly fascinating, very original, quite ambitious in theme; and in the end just barely a success on its unique terms.  

New Dimensions II

“Eurema’s Dam” is in the “tall tale” dimension. Eurema is a Greek word that means, roughly, “invention”, so the title means, “mother of invention”, and the theme is, more or less, “stupidity is the mother of invention”. The hero is Albert, “the last of the dolts”. Because he isn’t smart enough to do anything himself, he keeps inventing machines to do things for him. Of course, it turns out that those machines are useful for lots of other people as well. So Albert gets rich. But he doesn’t really care about that. And what really ends up bothering him is that the machines he creates think he’s a dolt, too, and when they take over … well, you see where it’s going. It’s a fun enough story, but it doesn’t have the true inspiration, the magic, that I find in his best stories.

Odyssey, Summer 1976

And Lafferty's story, "Love Affair with Ten Thousand Springs", is pretty characteristic of him, about a man who loves springs and their "pegeids" (analogous to naiads). They are all imperfect, and the pegeid at the center of this story turns out to be imperfect in a scary way. Plenty of linguistic invention and verve, but probably a bit too long, too rambling. Minor Lafferty, really.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Gordon R. Dickson

 Gordon R. Dickson was born November 1st, 1923, so his 97th birthday was a few days ago. I realized I hadn't ever done one of these short fiction review assemblages for him before (I did review his Ace Double The Genetic General/Time to Teleport), and so I put together a collection of all the short fiction I'd happened to write about when discussing old SF magazines. Then I remembered that the cover story of the very first SF magazine I ever bought, the August 1974 Analog, was by Dickson, and I figured I should write about that too! But that required some excavation in my boxes of old Analogs, and thus this birthday review is a bit late!

Astounding, February 1952

"Steel Brother" may have been the first solo Gordon Dickson story to make a lasting impact. It's about a Solar System Frontier Guard, Thomas Jordan. The Frontier Guards man a somewhat implausible series of station at the edge of the Solar System, which each control a phalanx of robot ships that attack the aliens that periodically try to invade. Thomas Jordan has just taken his first command, and he's convinced he's a coward. He's also afraid of the implanted connection to the stored memories of all his predecessors (the "steel brother"): he's heard stories of people losing their identity and being overwhelmed by the memories. So when his first attack comes, he funks it, and almost lets the alien ships through, until he finally allows the "steel brother" to help -- and learns a lesson about, well, comradeship. There's a typically Dicksonian ambition, and a sort of ponderousness, to the story -- which nonetheless didn't really work for me, it seemed strained.

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.

Galaxy, January 1954

The novelets are Gordon R. Dickson's "Lulungomeena" (6500 words), and Winston Marks's "Backlash" (8800 words). "Lulungomeena" is a story that is mostly OK but that relies on a contrived and annoying trick ending. It's about an old spacer, about to retire, and a young kid who is bored by the old man's tales of his home, Lulungomeena, and frustrated by the old man's claim to have once been a ready gambler, who gave up the habit. The kid wants to get a chance at the old man's savings, and also to shut him up. He finally baits the older man into a large bet ... and then the trick ending. One interesting detail is that the story is narrated by another older spaceman, who identifies himself as a Dorsai. The earliest story Miller/Contento list as part of the Childe Cycle is "Act of Creation" (Satellite, April 1957). This one seems at least linked (or perhaps part of a beta version of some sort).

Orbit, July-August 1954

"Fellow of the Bees", by Gordon R. Dickson (7700 words) -- very slight but modestly entertaining. A somewhat implausibly vicious Empire comes to a remote planet to press gang crewmembers for their space navy. Most implausibly of all, they plan to press gang EVERY adult between about 20 and 60! The day is saved by the good fortune that the politically appointed admiral of the fleet is a bee lover, and by some implausibly brilliant space navy tactics masterminded by an old lady using the planet's merchant fleet.

Venture, March 1957

“Friend’s Best Man” is a Gordon Dickson sociological set-up story … really a very Campbellian sort of thing. A rich man comes to an isolated frontier planet to meet an old friend, and learns that the friend has been murdered by a local nogoodnik. And that despite the dead man being universally popular, and the nogoodnik largely reviled, and the facts of the case not being in dispute, nothing is being done about it. The reason soon becomes obvious – the planet is labor-starved, and they can’t afford to lose the work done by the bad guy. The only solution is for the rich visitor to replace him – then justice can be done, and the bad guy punished. But will the rich guy have the balls to give up his easy life for the hard work of a frontier planet? Dickson is here straining to make a point, a point that frankly I don’t believe for a second. The strains of the setup show, and there is no examination of the ultimate stresses – and resulting loss of productivity – that such a system would cause. 

Astounding, December 1957

The other story that presents the humans are inherently superior idea, much more explicitly, is Dickson's "Danger -- Human!". (Silverberg's story, to give it its due, doesn't really suppose that humans are inherently superior, just that some sort of local historical accident has resulted in humanity being ahead of the nearby aliens in development.) In "Danger -- Human!" an alien group is monitoring Earth. It seems that humans are the descendents of a race that two or three times before has risen from obscurity to dominate the Galaxy, not to the benefit of the rest of the intelligent races. One of the monitoring guys decides to kidnap an human, a New Hampshire farmer, to study him and figure out if humans are still dangerous. Bad idea ... (as we could guess immediately). The main problem is that the human superiority is essentially asserted, not proven, unless we are to conclude from a final revelation (unless I misunderstood it) that the guy broke through an impenetrable field of some sort that humans have psi powers. (Which would really make the story stupid.)

Analog, August 1974

This is the first SF magazine I ever bought, from the newsstand at Alton Drugs in Naperville, IL, sometime in July of 1974. I'd been reading SF from the library with great dedication for a couple of years by then, and reading anthologies like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Nebula Award Stories collections had shown me that there were magazines that published the stuff.

That day there were three magazines next to each other, the August issues of Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. I bought the Analog first because it still had a certain reputation in my mind -- derived mostly from Campbell's 1940s "Golden Age". (I also liked the John Schoenherr cover.) I read through it quickly, and the next day I bought Galaxy, and the day after I bought F&SF.

The cover story is "Enter a Pilgrim", by Gordon R. Dickson. It tells of Shane Evert, a young man who works as a translator for the alien ruler of Earth -- Earth having been conquered three years before by the huge and technologically superior Aalaag. Shane dreams of some hero leading a resistance to the Aalaag, but on this day he witness the brutal execution of a man who had defended his wife from a careless young Aalaag. Later, a bit drunk, Shane is accosted by three human outlaws, but easily kills them all -- and in the mixture of shame and triumph he feels, something clicks, and the takes what (I can tell) will be the first steps of resistance to the Aalaag. Even at 14 I could see that this was not a complete story -- and indeed, three more stories followed (two in Analog, one in the anthology/magazine Far Frontiers), and they were fixed up into a novel, Way of the Pilgrim (1987). This took a surprisingly long time -- the other stories didn't appear until 1980 and 1985, and I never actually have read the novel, though I'm fairly sure I know the basic plot!

(That August 1974 Galaxy also features a story that is basically an appendage to a novel -- Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Day Before the Revolution", which to be fair isn't part of The Dispossessed, and works fine by itself. And I should note that Lester Del Rey picked the Dickson story for his Best of the Year volume.)

Cosmos, July 1977

"Monad Gestalt", Dickson's novella, is actually part of his novel Time Storm. It reads very much like a novel excerpt -- it's not very successful standing alone. The central idea of Time Storm is neat enough -- Earth (and, it turns out, the whole universe) is divided by "windwalls" into different times -- if you pass through a wall (which may be stationary or moving) you will end up in the same geographical location but at another time. Our hero (the first person narrator) is leading a group of people, including a few violent toughs, a scientifically-oriented man, a teenaged girl, a woman named Marie with a four year old daughter, and a tame leopard. The narrator has claimed Marie as "his woman" but doesn't love her. The teenager is attracting the attention of the leader of the toughs, a man named Tek. The group is trying to find a spot in the future that might hold a clue to the origin of the time storm. Indeed, they do eventually find a deserted future city -- deserted but for one inhabitant, an "avatar" of an alien intelligence. Guided by the alien plus a lot of totally ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, our hero finds another location with a sort of computer/gestalt connection, which will allow him to link with the other minds in his group and become a sort of supermind, able to deflect the time storm at least locally.

Faugh! Dickson sets up an intriguing premise in the time storm and resolves it with authorial fiat. (And stupid coincidence -- the narrator needs exactly eight people in his "gestalt" to gain full power. But there are only seven adults in his group. Not to worry -- the four year old can be combined with a genetically engineered ape that just happens to be nearby to provide slot number 8!) Add a very creepy romance that doesn't even have any emotional force -- the narrator all of a sudden just realizes that he wants the teenaged (young teenaged -- not much older than 14) girl for his own. To be fair, some of the problems I had with this story may well be the result of abridgement to novella length -- the full novel might allow more convincing development of some of these things.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Review: H. M. S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

 I really thought I had posted this to my blog long ago, but apparently not. O'Brian's birthday isn't until December, but what the heck, these are great books, I'm posting this now. I wrote this review, of the third novel in Patrick O'Brian's incomparable Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels back in 1997. H. M. S. Surprise is still probably my favorite of all the series, though all 20 books are completely worth reading. 

Review Date: 28 December 1997

H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

First published in 1973

In praising Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books I am on well-trodden ground. In a sense, it is superfluous to do so: so many people, of such varied and excellent taste, have praised these books to the skies that further lauds from the modest likes of me are hardly necessary. Nonetheless, it gives me pleasure to express my delight in books I enjoy, so: onward.

I began reading the Aubrey-Maturin books with Master and Commander, first in the series, just two months ago [back in 1997]. I have decided on a ration of one per month, so this month (December) I read H.M.S. Surprise, third in the series. So far, this is probably the best of the series, though as with other excellent series of books, it can be difficult to pick favorites: the joys are ongoing, and to some extent a result of the cumulative pleasures of the books, and each book has high points and low, leisurely strolls and heart-stopping battle scenes, love scenes, political wrangling, sailing jargon, and much more.

To briefly recap the first two books (I hope without excessive spoilers): Master and Commander introduces Jack Aubrey, a British ship captain, to Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naturalist/physician. Maturin is at loose ends financially, and Aubrey needs a ship surgeon for his new command, so what swiftly becomes a remarkable friendship is formed. The first book is set in 1801, and follows the doings of Jack's ship, the Sophie, in the Mediterranean during this phase of the Napoleonic wars. There are some ship battles, which are well done but not essential to the enjoyment of the book, but in general the book is a bit episodic in structure. Maturin is introduced to the sea, and becomes fixed as a ship's surgeon; Aubrey has some notable successes, which bid fair to set him up for life financially.

In Post Captain love interests are introduced for both Jack and Stephen: Jack becomes (after much travail) engaged to the beautiful and respectable Sophie Williams, and Stephen becomes involved with Sophie's widowed cousin, Diana Villiers, also beautiful but decidedly less respectable (in early 19th Century terms). In addition, Jack falls disastrously in debt, due to the criminality of his prize agent, and spends much of the novel evading debtor's prison. Stephen is revealed to the reader as a British spy and a fierce supporter of Catalan independence. The war with France breaks out again, and after a thrilling escape from France, Jack is given command of an experimental ship, the Polychrest, and despite its flaws leads a successful raid, gaining promotion to Post Captain (which appears to put him on some sort of "tenure track" in the Royal Navy). Still needing to be on ship (to stay out of reach of his creditors), Jack accepts a temporary position on the H. M. S. Lively, and with some other captains, captures a magnificent prize from the French. His financial future again appears secure.

So we come to H.M.S. Surprise. Political machinations cost Jack his prize money, and Stephen's cover in Spain is blown. As a result, and also because Stephen is scheming to see Diana again (who has been taken by her keeper, the Jewish merchant Richard Canning, to India), Jack takes command of the aged frigate H.M.S. Surprise, and is sent to Cambodia (stopping in India) to deliver the new British envoy to the Sultan of Kampong.

Thus the setup for a long, wonderful, account of the voyage to the Orient and back. The pleasures of this book are remarkably varied: high comedy, such as the famous drunken sloth incident; high adventure, as the men of the Surprise battle not only the South Atlantic at its fiercest, but also the French; and bitter disappointment and even tragedy, in Stephen's seesaw relationship with Diana, as well as Stephen's involvement with a young Indian girl. Indeed the plot of this novel is much the most complicated and well-constructed of the three O'Brian novels I've read.

The pleasures of this book, however, are not restricted to a fine plot. The ongoing development of the characters of Jack and Stephen, and of their complex and fully described friendship, continues to be a major achievement. In addition, the many minor characters are fascinating: the envoy Mr. Stanhope, Stephen's Indian friend, the various ship's officers and men, other ship captains, and so on. And O'Brian's depiction of the building of an effective crew, the relationship of captain to officers to men, is another fascinating detail, and something he revisits from book to book, as Jack encounters different crews in different circumstances. Finally, O'Brian is a fine writer of prose, with a faintly old-fashioned style, well poised to evoke the atmosphere of the time of which he writes to readers of our time, and consistently quotable, in his dry fashion.

One arguable weakness of these books in general is related to the fact that they are an ongoing series. This results in certain formulaic constraints: Jack and Stephen may be in great danger, but we can be sure that they won't die. Also, the books so far follow a similar pattern: Jack begins each book in financial distress (and the opening of the second and third books describe the reasons for his financial problems: in neither case are they his fault), and by the end is financially well set up. Also somewhat formulaic is the heroic nature of the two main protagonists: Jack is a truly brilliant seaman, and Stephen is a brilliant scientist and doctor. But these weaknesses are not important to enjoyment of the books: in particular, though Jack and Stephen are heroic in certain aspects of their characters, they are both multi-faceted characters, with terrible flaws and endearing crotchets in addition to their accomplishments. And they truly come across to this reader as characters of their time, and not 20th Century people cast back into the past. Even Stephen's very contemporary racial and religious attitudes are well-motivated by his background, and expressed in language which reeks wonderfully of his time: "Stuff. I have the greatest esteem for Jews, if anyone can speak of a heterogeneous great body of men in such a meaningless, illiberal way."

I recommend these books highly. It is with great difficulty that I restrain myself, upon finishing each book, from immediately starting in on the next one, though so far my one per month discipline has prevailed. I look forward eagerly to another year and a half or so of pleasure as I continue this series.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review: The Iron Dragon's Mother, by Michael Swanwick

The Iron Dragon's Mother, by Michael Swanwick

a review by Rich Horton

This is Michael Swanwick's third novel set in this particular world, an industrialized version of Faerie. The first was The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993), which, Swanwick has said (to the book group I'm in for one!) was not intended to have any follow-ons. But when asked for a dragon story for an anthology, he ended up with an idea for another story set in the world of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, "King Dragon" (in The Dragon Quintet), which became the seed for the novel The Dragons of Babel (2008). And last year, The Iron Dragon's Mother appeared. I should note, first, that while I've read a novella extracted from The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I have not yet read that book. I did read, and loved, The Dragons of Babel. All three novels are complete in themselves -- apparently a character or two from each book also shows up in another of them, but the action of each is entirely comprehensible without knowing the others.

I considered outlining the plot of this novel briefly, and quickly realized how unsatisfactory that would be. There is a plot, mind you, a well-constructed plot, with plenty of incident and adventure, essentially concerning a young woman, half-human, half-elven, who is railroaded out of her job, as a dragon pilot, at the same time her father dies and her brother, his heir, runs away. Her goal is to find her brother and prove her innocence. All this drives the action, but what drives the novel is character and language and story. 

Characters? Caitlin, of course, the half-breed daughter of the House Sans Merci who thought she was a faithful and accomplished member of the Air Force until she was betrayed. Helen V., the human woman who at the moment of her death jumps from our world to Caitlin's mind. Fingolfinrhod, Caitlin's feckless but loyal brother. Fata Narcisse, surgeon to the Lord of the Rails, charged to keep the living trains in action. Esme, the lucky girl who attaches herself to Caitlin, who is older than anyone else. Edderkopp, the spidery lawyer. Raven, who becomes Caitlin's not fully trustworthy friend. 

(Note -- there's no lover in this mix. Caitlin's virginity is an important aspect -- for reasons that don't really match traditional reasons. And, yes, this book pretty easily aces the Bechdel test.)

Language? One of the tricks of fantasy is to balance the expectations of matching your language to the fantastical milieu with the expectations of contemporary readers (i.e. prose in a register they are familiar with.) (See Ursula K. Le Guin's famous essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie".) Swanwick here master both registers -- when an invocation of High Fantasie is required, it's there. But more often he is undermining such invocations with comic -- indeed vulgar -- descriptions. And this can be very funny, but better than that, it rings true.

Story? The novel is interlarded with explicit stories, of recent history and distant history, of the childhoods of the characters, of people explaining themselves ... some of these are lies, and all them are true. Of course, one of the main characters (Helen V.) is by profession a story-teller -- and perhaps she's not quite sure she's ever escaped being in a story. A story that must end. And, in a way, this story is about making a version (a distorted version?) of our world play a part in pure story, pure fantasy.

I don't think I've come close to doing this book justice. But I can say that I loved reading it, and that it deserves as wide a readership as it can get. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Great Baseball Game

[A Facebook post I made that I confess I'm pretty proud of.]

We are reminded so often by 2020 of the dark things in our world -- the political situation, newly resurgent COVID-19 (which is rampaging through my extended family now), weather, and of course such always-with-us threats as cancer, which has struck both sides of my family just recently. None of these things are gone.

So it is good to be reminded of what is wonderful about this life. In great things -- a trip yesterday to visit our granddaughter, who only offered further proof that she is the cutest granddaughter of all time, and who is old enough now to show that fascination with everything she can see that is so adorable. Alas, no pictures, we're trying to keep her social media profile minimal, but trust me on the cuteness!

And then there's sports. I know lots of folks aren't sports fans, and that's cool. But I am, and my main CFB team (Clemson) won, and my local team (Missouri) also won, convincingly. But that's just stuff. That's cool, but it's not special.

Last night's baseball game was special. There is a lot of stuff people complain about in baseball these days, myself among the complainers. The games are too long. They are too focussed on the so-called "Three True Outcomes" (walk, strikeout, home run.) Etc. Etc. But -- sometimes the game can be sublime. For me, the greatest World Series game of all time will probably always be Game 6 of the 2011 series, and I can't say last night's game was better than that. But it's definitely in the conversation to be next on the list.

This is a series in which I don't have a strong rooting interest. I like the Rays because of their scrappy image, and their brilliant front office, and players with local connections like Pete Fairbanks, who went to High School with my son, or Josh Fleming, who went to Webster University, or Randy Arozarena, who came up in the Cards' system and would still be a Card if the Cards' front office could evaluate hitters. But I like the Dodgers because they have been the best team in baseball, overall, for nearly a decade, but have been heartbroken in the playoffs (often at the hand of the Cardinals, and once at the hand of the Astros while they were cheating), and because Clayton Kershaw is so great, and because they too have done a great job of identifying talent other teams have missed, like Justin Turner and Max Muncy.

We got home from my daughter's at about 8:30 last night. I think the score was 2-0, Dodgers. Essentially from the point we turned the game on, the two teams scored in every half-inning, with some power but mostly with relentless at-bats, and good baserunning, and some luck. The Dodgers, who have established a reputation as a great 2 out team, scored all 7 of their runs with two outs. The teams were both playing essentially "bullpen" games, running a different pitcher out there pretty much every inning.

There were great individual performances. Corey Seager and Justin Turner, of the Dodgers, each went 4 for 5 with a home run. The incredible Randy Arozarena went 3 for 4 with a home run and a critical walk and a glorious mess of a dash for the winning run.

And that last play! The Dodgers had their great closer Kenley Jansen on the mound. He gave up a hit (a broken bat single, not Jansen's fault, instead a gift of the baseball gods) and a walk on a great Arozarena at-bat, and got 2 outs, and was facing probably the Rays' 28th player, Brett Phillips, a late acquisition from the Kansas City Royals, an extra outfielder who hit under .200. Phillips took the first three pitches, all out of the strike zone, but the last two close enough that the umpire gave Jansen the calls. So, a 1-2 count, one of the best closers of our era on the mound, a no-account Mendoza-line hitter ... and he punched the next pitch into right center for a single. Not a rocket, just a ball he hit in the right place. It was clear from the start that Kevin Kiermaier would score easily from second, but centerfielder Chris Taylor charged the ball, apparently ready to throw home in a desperate attempt -- and the ball glanced off his glove. Taylor chased it down, and by now Arozarena was steaming towards home with the winning run, but Taylor's throw and Muncy's relay were good, and it looked like the play would be close. Then Arozarena stumbled, and rolled, and he would have been out by a mile. But the catcher, Will Smith, anticipating a close play, had tried for a sweep tag, and lost the ball. So Arozarena got up and ran home, sliding in headfirst and banging the plate with joy, an image I won't forget.

I can only imagine what my friend and Tampa resident Rick Wilber and his son must have been feeling! But the glee was contagious. One of the great things was watching the post game show, and watching the commentators, great ex-players like Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriquez and David (Big Papi) Ortiz just chortling, literally jumping up and down with happiness -- not because of a rooting interest, but because -- as we sometimes forget -- they truly truly love the game.

Baseball is a small thing next to 230,000 people in the US, over a million in the world, dead from a terrible disease. It's a small thing next to having a brother dying of cancer. It's not nearly as important as the proper governance of our country. But it's still a source of joy, a wonderful thing, when it comes together like it did last night.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Non-Birthday Review: Stories of Marie Brennan

I haven't done a Birthday Review in a bit, and it occurred to me that I had never done a collection of my Locus reviews of Marie Brennan's short fiction ... and I realized that there are some people whose birthdays I don't know. But that's no reason not to post about their wonderful short stories! So here is what I've written about Marie Brennan's short stories in the past dozen years or so:

Locus, March 2008

The Fall On Spec has three nice fantasy stories – each managing to be somewhat traditional and yet quite clever and original. Marie Brennan's "Nine Sketches in Charcoal and Blood” tells of a curious group of seemingly related people at the auction of a dead man’s effects – what sinister secret links them to each other and the dead man, and on what are they bidding? 

Locus, January 2009

I was particularly impressed by Marie Brennan’s “A Heretic by Degrees” (Intergalactic Medicine Show, December). It’s set in a strikingly artificial setting – I was reminded of Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” and Will McIntosh’s “Linkworlds”, to name two other 2008 stories. Brennan’s story opens it what seems a somewhat conventional fantasy world, as the new Councillor Paramount feels pushed to heretically suggest that they look “outside the world” for a cure for their dying King. And soon the Councillor is journeying to a series of strange quite separately and increasingly small “worlds”. Brennan does not content herself with simply displaying this odd universe – we get a similarly odd, and unsettling, explanation, as well as a satisfying and unexpected solution to the Councillor’s (and the King’s ) problem.

Locus, April 2009

From the first 2009 issue of Abyss and Apex I enjoyed "Letter Found In A Chest Belonging To The Marquis de Montseraille Following The Death Of That Worthy Individual", by Marie Brennan, which movingly tells of a man’s love for his wife and their involvement in a rebellion, which led to her death – and how he tried to fix that.

Locus, June 2009

An online source of fiction in much the same mode as Black Gate is Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in April they published four more fine stories. I’ll mention two: Marie Brennan’s “Driftwood” is set in her curious universe where different worlds crash together eventually to disappear – here we meet a woman who has somehow survived the death of her world for centuries.

Locus, June 2011

I had a lot of fun with Marie Brennan’s “Love, Cayce”, in the April Intergalactic Medicine Show. It’s feather light, but not intended to be anything else, telling very humorously of the harrowing adventures of Cayce and a group of her young friends, trying to accomplish a quest (or quests) to compare with their parents’ tiresomely rehashed adventures. Brennan also appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies with “Dancing the Warrior”, a novella that serves to introduce Seniade, a 13 year old dancer who leaves her dancing school to become a warrior. It’s encumbered by its prequel status – there’s not much suspense as Sen encounters cruelty and hazing but will clearly succeed. Still, she’s an engaging character, and the forthcoming novels to feature her are likely worth a look.

Locus, June 2016

Marie Brennan’s “From the Editorial Pages of the Falchester Weekly Review” (Tor.com) is a smart story told as an exchange of letters between Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent) and Benjamin Talbot, who has discovered a cockatrice … escalating effectively to a commentary on fantastical zoology, and on the place of women in science. 

Locus, July 2016

Clockwork Phoenix is back, and its fifth number is another tasty mix of stories that test the borders of genre. Marie Brennan’s “The Mirror-City” is a lovely story turning on a nice conceit: two cities, Venice-like, that are mirror images of each other, reflected in the water; and the marriage that unites them.

Locus, April 2019

Uncanny in March-April includes three stories dealing with somewhat obsessive and ultimately hopeless love. My favorite is a lovely and rather dark tale of a magical school, “Vis Delendi”, by Marie Brennan. Thirteen masters of the school are examining an uninspiring student for the highest possible degree: vis faciendi, attainable only by one who can demonstrate a spectacular new feat of magic. And this young man, Harrik Neconnu, proposes to return a dead woman to life. This woman was a particularly brilliant student, killed in an accident – and she was also the granddaughter of the Opal Master, their leader. And so Neconnu demonstrates his technique, based on an old folktale – convincingly portrayed and quite dark in context – and then the story comes to a fully believable and somewhat wry conclusion.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Ace Double Review: Castaways' World/The Rites of Ohe, by John Brunner

Another John Brunner birthday, another Ace Double review! John Brunner in his early super-prolific period (up through about 1965) was reliably entertaining and always thoughtful, if often also a touch, er, hurried.

Ace Double Reviews, 60: Castaways' World, by John Brunner/The Rites of Ohe, by John Brunner (#F-242, 1963, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

Another Ace Double pairing two John Brunner stories. Castaways' World is about 45,000 words, and The Rites of Ohe about 46,000 words. Amusingly, Ace had all kinds of trouble with the title of Castaways' World: the front cover has it Castaways World, no apostrophe, and the spine has Castaways' Worlds, an extra plural. I shouldn't carp, though: in an earlier review of Brunner's Zarathustra books (of which Castaways' World was the second), I got it wrong too: Castaway's World. The covers are by the two Eds: Valigursky and Emshwiller.

Castaways' World is, as I have said, one of Brunner's three Zarathustra Refugee Planet novels. These concerned the aftermath of the sun of a human-colonized planet in a future galactic polity going nova. A desperate effort resulted in a bunch of ships fleeing the nova in more or less random directions, settling new planets without much care as to their habitability. Castaways' World was revised and expanded in 1974 for a DAW edition called Polymath, to about 62,000 words. As with most of Brunner's many revisions of his novels, the changes are modest expansions and prose refinements throughout the book: no new scenes, no changes in the plot.

The book is set in the immediate aftermath of two ships from Zarathustra crashlanding on a planet. The viewpoint character is Lex, who turns out to have been in training to be a polymath. A polymath is an enhanced individual who serves at the point man for colonizing a new planet. Lex has many but not all of the skills a polymath would have -- what he mostly lacks is specific knowledge of this particular randomly arrived at planet. His starship crashed on the seashore. After a long winter his group has survived, outside the ship, and indeed their ship has foundered in the ocean. It is clear that they will have to make a permanent life on the planet, with limited resources.

The other group crashed inland, and they holed up in the ship over the winter. But as spring arrives it seems they have all died. The seaside group begins to set up the rudiments of a colony. There are stresses, many centered about a promiscuous young woman named Delvia. In particular, a teenaged girl has formed a Lesbian attraction to Delvia, only to be rejected when the older woman finds men available.

Then an expedition is sent to the site of the inland starship. It turns out this group has survived, but under terrible conditions. They continue to believe that they will be able to refurbish their ship and head for another, more hospitable, world. The Captain has basically enslaved the passengers. Naturally they resent the comparative success of Lex's group -- setting up a dramatic resolution. The novel is very enjoyable, often thought-provoking though at times a bit forced -- on the whole good stuff.

The Rites of Ohe opens with a young woman sneaking into a hotel room. It turns out she is convinced that something happened to her lover there a few months previously -- this was the last place he was seen before he disappeared. Nobody believes her, but then a chance confrontation with Karmesin, one of a small group of human immortals, changes things. Karmesin becomes convinced that something strange did happen.

Karmesin's investigations quickly focus on a the mysterious non-human, though very humanoid, residents of the planet Ohe (called that because it has no heavy elements). The residents of Ohe are regarded as experts in sociology, and they have been recruited to help diagnose something called the "Phoenix Mystery", a violent cult plaguing the human worlds. The Oheans are a much older civilization than humans, but hamstrung by their lack of heavy metal, they never really explored beyond their planet.

The mystery inevitably leads Karmesin to Ohe itself, and to some surprising discoveries about the real motives and real accomplishments of the people of Ohe. It's a pretty interesting book, though perhaps just a bit slight -- I think it might have worked better at about half the length. It's also, as with a fair amount of Brunner novels, a bit subdued in tone -- not quite morose but not triumphal, either. Solid work, though, and more evidence that you can will almost never fail to be entertained by a Brunner book.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Old Bestseller (?): A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

 A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

a review by Rich Horton

I have long enjoyed writers' memoirs, perhaps because they are usually well-written. It's not usually because their lives are all that exciting, after all! So when I found a cheap used copy of Edith Wharton's autobiography,  A Backward Glance, I snapped it up, and I have just read it. I will note that I say "autobiography", and that is what it is usually called, but the first edition of the book was simply subtitled "Reminiscences", which is perhaps more appropriate.

This book was published in 1934, three years before Wharton's death. It had been serialized in the Ladies' Home Journal the prior year (and it also incorporates some material from the Atlantic Monthly.) As such it might have been expected to deal with almost her whole life. And in a sense it does, but ... Well, to begin at the beginning, that's where the book begins. It opens with a scene from her very young childhood, which she calls her earliest memory, walking with her father in a new dress that she realizes she likes. There is some description of her family's roots -- and they were a prosperous family, on both sides, well established in New York society. There are early foreign travels, to Italy, Spain, France. And she discovers books -- though not novels, those are not allowed -- and she discovers story, and very soon is making up her own stories. By her teens she had written a novella, and had published some poetry. But it is clear that there was no expectation that a lady of her class would become a professional writer. 

As she grows older we learn of her marriage, to Teddy Wharton, but we learn almost nothing of Teddy. His name is barely mentioned. It is clear in context that they did not get on, but you have to look outside this book to learn that he had mental problems, was eventually institutionalized, and that they divorced in 1913, having been long separated before that. There is mention of some apparently enjoyable travel they did early in their marriage -- a Mediterranean cruise, some carriage rides to obscure places in Italy, etc. And we do learn that Edith was fascinated by motorcars, and bought one as soon as she could.

We certainly never hear of her extramarital affairs. The name of Morton Fullerton does not appear in the book. Walter Berry is mentioned, at length, but there is no hint of a romantic attachment. (Apparently, there was a romantic attachment, though it's not at all clear it was ever consummated.) Berry does get full credit for his role as, essentially, her beta reader: he read her earlier works before they were published, and offered apparently very helpful advice, both positive and negative in tone.

So what else happened in her life? She moved permanently to France in 1907, having previously built a country home in Massachusetts. And she met a lot of people! And -- perhaps most eventfully -- she had a "good war", as it used to be said, during the Great War. She was in Paris, and there was a need for help in caring for refugees. Wharton took the lead in organizing a great amount of this -- fundraising, training women volunteers, arranging housing and medical help. She is fairly self-deprecatory about her efforts, but after the War she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French government.

So, if we're not going to hear about her marriage or her love affairs, and if we're not going to hear much about actual events qua events in her life, why read this book? The obvious first answer is -- what does it tell us about her writing? And in this area it's maybe a slight disappointment. It's not that there's nothing about her writing -- but there's not a lot. She does discuss the genesis of her first book, a surprisingly influential work on, of all things, interior decoration, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman. She also discusses her early short stories, mostly in Scribner's Magazine, such as "Mrs. Manstey's View", and the first story collection, A Great Inclination. After that her writing gets less attention, though many of her books do get a look. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision (which I must read!), is touched on; as is the success of The House of Mirth (and the failure of a play based on it); and Ethan Frome is mentioned (at that time still considered arguably her best (short) novel), but mostly to complain that people said she knew nothing about people like those in Ethan Frome, though at the time she actually had a home in the area where the novel is set. The Age of Innocence is mentioned partly to express surprise at its commercial success. (I don't think the Pulitzer it received is acknowledged.) And, to the disappointment of many readers, she doesn't really discuss the depths of her imagination, nor, very much, the mechanics of her writing process. I think we have to acknowledge that she simply wasn't interested in such a discussion.

So what else is there? Well, what there is is extensive exploration of her many friendships. First among these by far is Henry James. An entire chapter is given to him, with much discussion of James' personality, his habits, his eccentricities, his endearing qualities, his novelistic theories. There are accounts of various day trips she and James took when she visited him. There are accounts of his occasional criticism of her writing (which, on the whole, he admired.) There are additional anecdotes of seeing James at her home in the US, and later in Paris. It is all very generous, and interesting.

And there are numerous additional friends to mention. Walter Berry, as mentioned. The great ghost story writer and esthetician Vernon Lee. The Parisian hostess the Comtesse de Robert Fitz-James. Ogden Codman. Jean Cocteau. Mrs. Humphrey Ward. The Royall Tylers. Egerton Winthrop. Theodore Roosevelt. Howard Sturgis. Edward Burlingame. Mrs. Charles Hunter. And so on. Many of these names, presumably prominent in their time, are forgotten now; but some -- Cocteau and Roosevelt and of course James -- are famous still, and others have underground reputations that continue, such as Vernon Lee and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. One might suspect Wharton of namedropping, but I don't think that's the case of all. These were her friends and acquaintances, and she treats them all with warmth and generosity.

So, this isn't a scandalous autobiography, nor a particularly psychologically acute autobiography,n or the story of an adventurous life. But it is continually enjoyable, and -- as we expect from Wharton -- exceptionally well-written. I will conclude with a couple of interesting excerpts (of sorts.)

First, her quick mention of when literature caught fire for her, upon receiving editions of Keats and Shelley as a birthday present: "Then the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don't believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy."

Second, an account of a story told to her by Jean Cocteau. I wrote this up for Black Gate, so here's a link: Wharton, Cocteau, and an ancient tale

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Stories about Time Viewers

We were discussing T. L. Sherred's "E for Effort" in a group recently, and that brought to mind this list I put together long ago of stories about time viewers. It was on my old website, but that's long gone now, so I figure I'd repost it here. It's striking how many of these are favorite stories of mine. Some of these aren't really about "viewing" the past but listening to it, or "experiencing" it through someone's sensorium.

Brian W. Aldiss, An Age, 1967, Also known as Cryptozoic!

Brian W. Aldiss, "Not for an Age", 1955, Future viewing our present

Poul Anderson, "The Long Remembering", 1957, Neolithic, * (The "viewing" is by "remembering" the experiences of an ancestor.)

Poul Anderson, "The Bog Sword", 2004,Bronze Age, *(A "sequel" to "The Long Remembering".)

Isaac Asimov, "The Dead Past", 1956, Classical/Recent Past, *(My favorite Asimov story, for what it's worth. And to detail the exact period it refers to is a spoiler.)

Gregory Benford, "Time Shards", 1979, Medieval, *This is actually about hearing the past, rather than seeing it.

Stephen L. Burns, "Showdown at Hell Creek", 1993, Dinosaurs,*

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days, 2000, Near past (and other times),.

Gardner Dozois, "A Night of Ghosts and Shadows", 1999, Far future viewing near future, *

Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, "Time Bride", 1983, Near future viewing present,.

Raymond Eich, "Evidence of Things Seen", 1998, Jesus, *

Phyllis Eisenstein, "In the Western Tradition", 1981, Old West, * (Another particular favorite of mine)

Harry Harrison, "The Secret of Stonehenge", 1968, Ancient Britain,.

Gardner Hunting, The Vicarion, 1926, All history

Rudyard Kipling, "'The Finest Story in the World'", 1891, many historical periods, * (This is really about "remembering" in detail historical event via one's ancestor's memories)

Damon Knight, "I See You", 1976, Near Past and All Time, *

Sean McMullen, "Wheel of Echoes", 2020, Shakespeare, * (like Benford's "Time Shards", it turns on recording of historical speakers on clay)

Judith Moffett, "Final Tomte", 1990, Decades in the past of the near future, * (This story and others that use the same idea are part of her novels The Ragged World and Time, Like and Ever Rolling Stream. A separate story in the same series, "The Bear's Baby" (2003), uses the time window idea prominently as well.)

Rebecca Ore, "Scarey Rose in Deep History", 1997, Historical Past (19th Century), *

Lewis Padgett, "Private Eye", 1949, Immediate Past, * (Padgett is a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. I seem to recall that this is regarded as predominantly by Kuttner, though with them, who knows for sure?)

Lawrence Person, "Crucifixion Variations", 1998, Jesus,*

Robert Reed, "Killing the Morrow", 1996,*

Mack Reynolds, Perchance to Dream, 1997, Early Roman, (Not true past viewing: computer reconstruction.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "June Sixteenth at Anna's", 2003, Fairly recent past, *

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Collateral Damage", 2004, A few centuries into the past, *

William Sanders, "Dirty Little Cowards", 1999, Historical Past (19th Century), *Actually instead of just viewing the past, "experiencing" it through the sensorium of an historical character.

Bob Shaw, "Light of Other Days", 1968, Near Past, * (A true classic. Shaw assembled this and some related stories into the novel Other Days, Other Eyes.)

T. L. Sherred, "E for Effort", 1947, Many Historical Events, *(In the SF Hall of Fame, another great story)

John Stith, Scapescope, 1984

John Taine, Before the Dawn, 1934, Dinosaurs,.

Wilson Tucker, "Time Exposures", 1971

Zoran Zivkovic, "The Paleolinguist", 1997, Hearing early humans, *

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Birthday Review: The Engine of Recall (and some other shorts), by Karl Schroeder

I don't think I've posted a Birthday Review at this blog for the excellent Canadian writer Karl Schroeder yet. One day late, here's one finally. This includes a review I did for SF Site of his story collection The Engine of Recall, plus a few additional reviews of short fiction from Locus.

The Engine of Recall, by Karl Schroeder

a review by Rich Horton

Canada has been the source of a great deal of intriguing SF over the past decade or so, much of it at least moderately "hard SF." Hugo and Nebula winner Robert J. Sawyer is of course one of the most prominent of Canadian SF writers. Other significant recent examples include Robert Charles Wilson, James Alan Gardner, Alison Sinclair, Julie E. Czerneda, Sean Stewart (more of a fantasy writer, of course), and Cory Doctorow. (Though often, it seems to me, Canadian writers have a sort of distributed nationality -- Wilson was born in the US, Stewart grew up splitting time between the US and Canada and now lives in the US, Doctorow spent several years in the US and now lives in Europe.) One of the most rigorously "hard SF" writers to come out of this "Canadian Renaissance" is Karl Schroeder, author of the impressive novels Ventus and Permanence. Now Schroeder has published his first story collection, The Engine of Recall (edited by Sawyer for his imprint at Red Deer Press).

The first thing that struck me about the Table of Contents was the relative unfamiliarity of most of the stories. This was a source of mild embarrassment to me, as I consider myself generally very up to date on short SF. It turns out that one engine of the "Canadian Renaissance" I mentioned above has been some Canadian outlets for SF, most notably the magazine On Spec and the anthology series Tesseracts, that to some extent slip under the radar of often US- and/or UK-centric SF readers. So Schroeder managed to publish a passel of first-rate stories without generating quite the buzz he deserved -- though one story here, "The Dragon of Pripyat", was reprinted in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Edition, and another, "Halo", was chosen for David Hartwell's anthology The Hard SF Renaissance.

Well, that's one reason for story collections -- to bring to light stuff that might have been missed on first publication. And the stories here are well worthy of this exposure. Take "The Dragon of Pripyat." Gennady Malianov is a morose Russian (or Ukrainian) man hired to investigate a threat to release radioactive material from the remains of Chernobyl. Malianov heads directly to the ghost town of Pripyat. There he meets a curious squatter, and also encounters the mysterious "dragon." He and a remote friend figure out the somewhat mundane (though interesting) nature of the dragon -- the heart of the story, though is the paradoxical landscape of Pripyat. Malianov turns up again in the collection's only original, "Alexander's Road." This time the threat is some missing nuclear warheads in Azerbaijan. Malianov's investigation, however, turns up a couple of further, even scarier, nuclear threats.

One of my favorite stories here is "Halo", set in the same future as Schroeder's novel Permanence. Elise Cantrell is a resident of Dew, a planet of Crucible, a brown dwarf star. Dew has just managed to install an artificial "sun," but this hopeful step is endangered when Elise discovers a message from a hijacked ship, taken over by fanatics who plan to destroy the fragile colony on Dew. She forges a tenuous relationship with one of the original crew of the hijacked ship, but they both know the only ultimate hope for Dew is to destroy the attacking ship, complete with innocent crew members as well as hijackers. This is an excellent example of a moving human story essentially set in an exotic, purely SFnal, environment. Another such story, not quite as successful but still enjoyable, is "The Pools of Air," in which a crew filming in Jupiter's atmosphere are placed in peril by a freak accident to their ship. "The Cold Convergence" is also set in the outer Solar System, this time on Saturn's moon Titan. A psychologist is hired to try to treat a man who has just wandered alone into the Titanian wilderness. The interesting story of the man is undermined a bit by an implausible resolution involving unconvincing real estate laws.

"Making Ghosts" is an interesting story about pioneers in transferring human consciousness to computers, while "The Engine of Recall" involves using such "ghosts" to pilot spaceships in such dangerous environments as the neighborhood of a neutron star.

"Allegiances" tells of a woman in war-torn former Yugoslavia who is cursed by the ability rob other people of the facial recognition sense. An intriguing idea that I don't think the story quite used well. "Hopscotch" is a rather Fortean story, in which the narrator is in love with a woman obsessed with statistical analysis of unusual events such as UFO sightings and raining fish. "Solitaire" tells of a young human criminal who manages to be "adopted" as sort of an interpreter by a solitary, uncommunicative, alien. The ending nicely violates traditional SFnal expectations.

It is clear to readers of Karl Schroeder's novels that he is a fascinating writer of Hard SF. The short stories in The Engine of Recall showcase that imagination effectively -- strong stories that aren't afraid to be adventure stories while also portraying cool ideas.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Strahan’s introduction signals his interest in what might be called older style SF as well. Hence fine stories like Karl Schroeder’s “Hero”, part of his Candesce series, concerning a young man who truly becomes a hero in delivering a critical message to one of the mysterious and dangerous precipice moths;

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

And from Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell we get “Mitigation”: Here a man is recruited by a Russian gangster to steal the gene sequences of rare plants from a Scandinavian repository. The thrillerish plot is OK – what holds the interest is the buzzing of ideas about the future of our embattled environment.

Review of Solaris 2 (Locus, February 2008)

Several other stories are particularly strong. Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” concerns an attempt by a medieval woman to retain knowledge during the Dark Ages, despite the suspicion of the Church, and the political machinations of her liege lord. 

Locus, July 2017

One of the significant anthologies of the year is Chasing Shadows, edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts, on the subject of “our coming transparent world”. There is a strong mix of essays on privacy, reprint stories, and a large selection of originals. I thought the best was “Eminence” by Karl Schroeder, about a cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), called Gwaiicoin, used by some Native American communities in the Canadian Pacific, based in part upon potlatch, and on environmental values, and on “eminence”, or social reputation. Nathan is one of the coders behind it, and he’s staked his economic future on it, much to his wife’s distress. And now it seems it’s been hacked – which pushes Nathan to a personal crisis, and perhaps an understanding that if he’s going to invest in something like Gwaiicoin, his investment needs to be total.

Locus, January 2019

The Million, by Karl Schroeder, is a very intriguing novella set in the future of his novel Lockstep, which I have not read. In this future, Earth is inhabited by close to exactly one million people, who strictly maintain their population, and the ecological integrity of the Earth. Any violation -- an unauthorized Visitor, or an unplanned child -- is subject to severe punishment at the hands of the Auditors. Gavin is an unauthorized child living on the Chaffee estate, having been kept a secret his whole life. But things come crashing down one day with they are attacked, and his existence is discovered. His father is killed, and his brother arrested -- one of the attackers is killed as well, and Gavin, escaping, takes an offered opportunity to take the identity of that man, Neil Makhav; and to apply to join the Auditors. Another new auditor candidate is Elana, who is part of the Hundred, the most privileged among the Million. Both Gavin and Elana are charged with secondary tasks by their "families" -- Elana's Aunt needs a plant in the Auditors to ensure their family's position remains secure through the next Jubilee, in which ten billion Visitors will run roughshod over Earth for a month. And Gavin, besides his own secret quest to free Bernie, is asked by his new "uncle", Eli Makhav, to do some spying for his family. Gavin and Elana become friends of a sort, and their separate snooping leads to a completely unexpected revelation. This is enjoyable indeed, but a bit thin. Schroeder's ideas are (as usual for him) fascinating, but they need more development and examination -- all of which I suspect is to be found in the novel.