Sunday, April 5, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald's birthday was back on March 31, but things have been a bit wild around here, and I didn't get around to posting this until today.

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

A review by Rich Horton

Ian McDonald's last novel, River of Gods, was in great part a portrait of future India, and so it is easy to view his new novel, Brasyl, as a portrait of future Brazil -- after, a country which is in some ways reminiscent of India, in its size, crowds, jungles, huge cities, and staggering diversity. While being at the same time wholly different. And to a certain extent I suppose that is true -- but only to a small extent. Brasyl ends up being about its SFnal idea more than anything -- that idea being the "we are a simulation running on a computer" one, with the variation being that the computer might be a quantum computer, which opens up parallel universes as part of the simulation.

It is told in three strands, divergent in time, and set in different major areas of the country. One is present day, and set in Rio de Janeiro, and focuses on Marcelina Hoffman, a producer of sensationalist reality TV. The second is set in 2032, in São Paulo, and focuses on Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, an entertainment entrepreneur -- for example, his current project is a pretty girl who can keep a soccer ball in the air forever. The third thread is set in 1732, mostly on the Amazon, and focuses on Luis Quinn, a Jesuit "admonitory" sent to bring a renegade priest back to the fold.

Marcelina's new project is a TV show, timed to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, which will put the goalie who let in the losing goal in the shocking loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup on trial. But she finds her plans sabotaged -- by someone who seems possibly to be her! She is a bit of a mess herself anyway ... and scary as it is, the eventual notion that there are other worlds to which one might even travel becomes almost alluring.

Edson has a large family, and one of his brothers is a criminal. In trying to get him out of trouble, Edson meets a beautiful quantum computer specialist, Fia Kishida. But quantum computers are proscribed tech, in this future of pervasive surveillance, so Fia is a dangerous person to know -- and after a while Edson is wanted himself, and on the run, with a different version of Fia -- and they too are looking to cross universes.

And finally Luis Quinn, in company with a French scientist, Robert Falcon, travels up the Amazon to deal with Father Goncalves, who has been converting Indians to Christianity and enslaving those who won't convert. Between the slavery, and Goncalves' odd version of Christianity, and his apparent desire for personal power, he is a pretty bad guy. But a powerful guy too, and Quinn is forced to try to find a tribe rumored to have great predictive powers, based on ingesting a frog's secretions. Of course, these powers turn out to arise from perceiving the many possible worlds all at once ... and Quinn gains these powers himself.

So on all three threads, the notion of parallel worlds, and travel between them, becomes central. And there is an action plot deriving from conflict across these worlds. I was reminded of Leiber at times, and of course of a certain Robert Charles Wilson novel too. It's a pretty good novel, very colorful, with imperfect but involving characters. It didn't quite work as well as River of Gods to my taste -- I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps the overarching theme didn't quite convince me. Perhaps some of the cute touches, like the 18th century characters speculating (with the help of a sort of Babbage machine) in very 21 century terms on things like the universe being a computer simulation, turned me off a bit. But these are minor quibbles -- this is a fine novel, well worth your time.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of A. Bertram Chandler, and an Ace Double (Nebula Alert)

Today would have been Arthur Bertram Chandler's 108th birthday. He was born in England, became a seaman and eventually settled in Australia. He started writing SF in the 1940s. By the '60s he was producing novels at a high rate, many of them about a spaceship captain named John Grimes. Here's a look at a few of his early stories, and one 1967 Ace Double.

Astounding, July 1946

A. Bertram Chandler's "Stability" is about a spaceship returning from Ganymede with a cargo of non-living protoplasm. Alas, the protoplasm somehow is activated by radiations from the ship's pile, and it moves in such a way as to make the ship unstable. The story concerns the heroic, but not always successful, efforts of the crew to restore stability and land the ship safely. I really wasn't ever convinced.

F&SF, April 1953

Perhaps every issue has a nuclear war story: "Jetsam" by A. Bertram Chandler from April 1953, which is also a first on the moon story, talking of disappeared themes -- it involves an expedition to the moon that discovers evidence that someone else has been there before, leading to a nicely turned twist.

Cosmos, September 1953

"Gateway", by A. Bertram Chandler, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. I thought it the best story in this issue, one of the best Cosmos published. It's set on a passenger liner, heading to New Zealand. The ship experiences some strange manifestations -- weird shadows, compass malfunctions, lights and what looks like land in the open sea. The hero is the second mate, who is romancing, in what might be a serious way, a young woman from New Zealand (possibly part Maori?). The story, at somewhat leisurely pace, depicts the odd happenings over a few days -- the Captain's skepticism -- the scary death of the ship's cat -- the concern of the (Scottish, therefore fey) Nurse and the Surgeon. The resolution is a bit shocking, and quite sad, starkly presented. It displays some of Chandler's obsessions -- the sea, of course, and also the idea of a thin border between this universe and parallel universes.

Cosmos, November 1953

A. Bertram Chandler's "Hot Squat" is a story about people in postwar England (I assumed) claiming abandoned government buildings as living places to escape crowding and in-laws. A couple of couples squat in one such place, only to get a (rather cute) surprise.

Cosmos, March 1954

Chandler's "Shadow Before" is one of his sea stories, about a sailor hoping to make it home for his first child's birth. He seems to be haunted, and a "psychic" couple befriend him but scoff at suggestions that the haunting is time travel -- only ghosts will do for them! We quickly gather that his son is trying to reach him and warn him of an accident upcoming.

Super Science Fiction, August 1957

A. Bertram Chandler's "The Search for Sally" is about a spaceman on the Earth-Mars run who loses his fiancee in a spaceship crash on Mars. But he has a telepathic link with her, and after a few months he begins to sense her again. He is convinced that she survived and has been taken in by the rumored surviving Old Martians, and he joins an expedition to track them (and her) down. The ending twist seemed very familiar to me -- has it been used elsewhere?

Ace Double Reviews, 46: The Rival Rigellians, by Mack Reynolds/Nebula Alert, by A. Bertram Chandler (#G-632, 1967, $0.50)

(Covers by Kelly Freas and Peter Michael)
Mack Reynolds and A. Bertram Chandler were both regular Ace Double contributors. Chandler was the second most prolific Ace Double writer, with 18 "halves". Reynolds published only 10 unique halves, but in 1973 several of his books were reissued in new combinations, bringing his total of Ace Double books to 11, four of which featured his stories on both sides. The Rival Rigellians is about 42,000 words long, and Nebula Alert is about 33,000 words.

The Rival Rigellians is an expansion of a 25,000 word novella, "Adaptation", from the August 1960 Astounding/Analog. (This was one of the "transition" issues, with the cover featuring the "stounding" part of "Astounding" superimposed in blue over the red "nalog" part of "Analog". According to the masthead, the official title was Astounding Science Fact and Fiction.) The novel adds fairly little to the basic story of the novella. Indeed, it adds but two basic factors -- two women are added to the list of characters, providing room for a very unconvincing love story in the one case, and for some cheap moralizing in the other case. (The woman are conveniently a slut and a virtuous woman -- and both are medical doctors.)

The conceit behind the story is that humans have expanded into the Galaxy in an unusual way. They have colonized various planets with rather small groups, 100 to 1000 people, then left the planets alone for 1000 years. Now they hope to bring these colonized planets into the Galactic Commonwealth. But first, they must be brought forward from their apparent debased technological and social levels to the levels of Galactic society. A group of 16 men and 2 women are the pioneers in this effort -- they are sent to the two habitable planets around Rigel. One planet has formed a civilization much resembling Renaissance era Italy, hence it is called Genoa, and the other resembles the Aztec civilization, hence it is called Texcoco. (In the novella, the same 16 men were on the team, but no women.)

The two leaders of the expedition differ on the best means to accomplish their goal. One favors encouraging free enterprise and democracy, the other favors encouraging despotic socialism and a planned economy. Somehow they notice that since there are two planets, they can each try their way, and compare results. The whole experiment will take 50 years -- no big deal for the long lived Earthmen.

The results are not quite as expected, perhaps. The socialist group goes all Hobsbawmian from the start, killing people left and right in the belief that that will be for the best in the long run. The capitalist group begins by setting up competing companies to introduce technological and societal innovations, which works OK for a while but then runs afoul of the established powers (church and aristocracy), and also goes bad when the Earth born owners of the introduced companies start trying to live high on the hog off their earnings. Fortunately, the natives of each planet have their own ideas about what's best for their futures.

It's not really all that bad a story. Parts are just silly, and much is contrived beyond reason. (For starters, I certainly cannot believe that the Earth authorities would send such a screwed up bunch of people to do this mission, with essentially no guidelines.) But beside the silly parts, much is thought-provoking, and I did like the cynical take on the supposedly benevolent Earth people. It's nothing special, but it does have its redeeming values.

Nebula Alert is the third of three stories by A. Bertram Chandler about the Empress Irene of the Terran Federation. By this story she has abdicated and married Benjamin Trafford. Irene owns the formal Imperial Yacht Wanderer, and serves as its first mate, while Benjamin is the Captain. As the story opens they are taking cargo between various Rim planets (though this future is not the same future as the Rim World stories about Commodore John Grimes ... about which more later). They are influenced by the representative of an anti-slavery organization to ferry a number of Iralians back to their home planet. It seems Iralians are perfect slaves, because they breed like rabbits, have very short gestation periods, and inherit their parents' memories and skills. Other than that they all seem to be incredibly sexy (and very humanoid).

It turns out that ships carrying Iralians have been lost repeatedly, perhaps due to pirates trying to catch more slaves. And sure enough the Wanderer runs into pirates. Their only escape route is through the Horsehead Nebula, but space inside the Nebula is strange. The first effect is to cause increased irritability, but that is solved by pairing off all the men and women on the ship, even though that includes a couple human/Iralian pairs. The second effect is to push the ship into an alternate universe (one of it seems like several thousand times Chandler pulled that stunt). And once in the alternate universe who should they encounter but ... Grimes! Surprise!

It's all pretty silly stuff -- Chandler really never seemed to care about little things like logic. That said, it's tolerable fun in its breezy way. Nothing I'd go out of my way to find, but not a story I regret reading, either.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Birthday Review: The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, plus capsules of two Wrede novels

Today is Patricia Wrede's birthday. She has long been one of the most enjoyable purveyors of mostly YA fantasy, generally with a light, humorous touch. I haven't seen anything from her in several years, but her sometime collaborator, Caroline Stevermer, has a new book, The Glass Magician, due in about 10 days, following a similar period of publication silence, so there's still hope. Wrede was also a voice of particular reason in the old days at the Usenet newsgroup rec.art.sf.composition, and she maintains a blog now that offers plenty of strong writing advice, Wrede on Writing.

In her honor, then, here's a review I wrote for SF Site of one of Wrede's collaborations with Stevermer, followed by a tiny capsule look at two of Wrede's Enchanted Forest novels.

The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

a review by Rich Horton

Back in 1988, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer published a paperback original novel that originated in a "letter game" the two played. Each took a character and wrote letters to the other as if written by their character. The result was a novel in letters, Sorcery and Cecelia. Over the years that novel became something like a cult classic. Those (like me) who were fortunate enough to have bought it on first release recommended it to other readers, but for some time it was hard to obtain. But the prospect of a sequel finally persuaded a publisher to reprint it, and indeed Harcourt's Magic Carpet imprint has released both Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour simultaneously.

The Grand Tour becomes one of three notable fantasies from 2004 set in the 19th or early 20th Century in an alternate historical England in which magic works. (The others being Stevermer's fine solo novel A Scholar of Magics and Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.) Of these it is undoubtedly the lightest in tone, but that is no complaint, simply a reflection of its intentions. In Sorcery and Cecelia two cousins in Regency England, Kate and Cecy, exchanged letters which told of their romances, and of certain magical difficulties, to do with Cecelia's apparent latent sorcerous abilities, with Kate's intended's own such abilities, and with a nasty villain wizard who wishes to grab more power for himself. In the new book, Kate has married Thomas, Lord Schofield, and become Lady Schofield, and Cecy has married James Tarleton. The four are setting off to the continent for a joint honeymoon tour. Instead of letters, the book is told in alternating sections from Kate's "commonplace book" (in this case mostly a diary) and from a deposition Cecy gives after the events of the novel.

Almost immediately trouble strikes in various forms. A mysterious lady gives them an alabaster flask of unknown significance. Kate keeps losing gloves (but then, she is clumsy). The ceiling falls on their dinner with Beau Brummell. A thief invades their rooms. Then, on the way to Paris, they are robbed by highwaymen.

In Paris they meet with the Duke of Wellington and it becomes clear that a variety of ancient objects connected with royalty are being stolen. Their mission, then, is to track down whoever is responsible for these thefts, and to try to figure out what they are up to. This is 1817, not long after Napoleon's final defeat, so it is not a surprise that Bonapartists figure in the plot. At any rate, the foursome (and servants) wend their way to Italy via a difficult passage through Switzerland, and it is in Florence, Venice and Rome that things come to a head.

This is an enjoyable book with a set of very pleasant characters. Still, it is not quite the delight that was Sorcery and Cecelia. One problem is simply that the main characters have already met and married their husbands -- there is no romance plot to help maintain the reader's interest. Another problem is that the revelations of the nature of sorcery are less "new" in this book than the original. Put simply -- this book is a sequel, and many of its problems are can be laid at the door of sequelitis. All that said, while I would certainly read Sorcery and Cecelia first, The Grand Tour is a fine novel, well worth your reading time.

[A third volume, The Mislaid Magician, appeared in 2006.]

Capsule Reviews of Dealing with Dragons and Searching for Dragons

The first two of Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, YA fantasy, very nicely told stories.  The first features an atypical princess, Cimorene, who, disgusted by the boring details of life as a princess, runs off to be captured by a dragon, then has to fight off the princes trying to rescue her, and eventually helps the dragons fend off a conspiracy by some evil wizards.  The second features the atypical young King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar, tired of dealing with boring princesses looking to marry him, and burdened by the duties of his Kingship, which he takes very seriously, who sets off to solve the mystery of a burned out section of the Forest: possibly caused by dragons?  At least, that's what a wizard tells him.  No prizes for guessing who the real bad guys are, nor for guessing which atypical princess he eventually meets.  The delight in these stories is Wrede’s voice, light-toned and intelligent, and the off-hand jokes about various fairy tale cliches.  Very enjoyable indeed.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Raymond Z. Gallun

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the writers who graduated from the Gernsback Era SF magazines to John W. Campbell's Astounding. His early story "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, was very popular. He published short fiction regularly until the mid-1950s, and after that mostly just a few novels through 1985.  Today would have been his 109th birthday. In his honor, here's a review of four of his 1950s short stories, plus a link to a review I posted some while ago of his 1961 novel The Planet Strappers.

Review of The Planet Strappers

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1951

Finally, Raymond Z. Gallun's "The First Long Journey" is another story about man overcoming the incredible difficulty of space travel. This is about a man on the first trip to Mars, and his difficulty believing he'll make it, all alone as he is. He whiles away the time remembering a girl he used to know, talks to himself a lot ... and nothing much happens, certainly nothing that convinced me.

Planet Stories, March 1952

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the mid-50s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. "Return of a Legend" is also set on Mars. A small human research station is the only Earth presence on mostly uninhabitable Mars, but there are stories about one old "wilderness tramp" who survived on the land for a few years. Then a man and his young son show up, and the two end up going native for long stretches. The father dies inevitably, but the boy is never discovered. He must have died, surely, but then he is found. His father's younger sister shows up and tries to make a relationship with him, but the boy misses Mars too much and escapes again, and so his aunt, now married to one of the long time Mars regulars, goes on a trek to try to find him, and they too end up required to find a way to survive on the surface. It's not really that plausible, but Gallun works pretty hard to make is at least a bit believable, and their eventual struggle to make a family and to become "real Martians", even as the research station is abandoned, ends up pretty moving.

Science Fiction Adventures, July 1953

The Feature Novel is Raymond Z. Gallun's "Legacy From Mars" (15500 words). Some miner types on Mars discover intelligent fish. They take the fish back to Earth with them, and the fish learn how to speak English. They also make music. The money-grubbing Captain has some nefarious plans, but rather implausibly, he is foiled, and the two good guys (along with the daughter of one who becomes the wife of the other) end up touring with the fish as a novelty act. But eventually the fish have their own plans ... Rather a silly story, I thought.

Science Fiction Stories, 1953

Raymond Z. Gallun's "Comet's Burial" (7500 words) is a somewhat predictable story about a pair of prospectors on the Moon. The older one is convinced that the way to make the Moon a going concern is to find water -- and that water exists below the surface, and can be brought to the surface by crashing a comet into the Moon. The younger man is not so sure, but he finds himself shanghaied into helping his partner in this mad scheme -- and they end up in prison for there efforts. However ... d'ya think maybe they might end up vindicated? It's somewhat hackneyed, but reasonably entertaining.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Old Romance Novel: Chelsea, by Nancy Fitzgerald

Old Romance Novel: Chelsea, by Nancy Fitzgerald

a review by Rich Horton

Chelsea is a romance novel from 1979, published by Doubleday. The Regency was the default period for sweet historical romances back then, but Chelsea is set in the Victorian Era, in fact, exactly 100 years prior to publication, in 1879. I could find nothing online about the writer, Nancy Fitzgerald. The endpapers claim she's a full time writer living in Venice, CA, with her daughter, Shaw, and a cat; and they mention a previous job at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The books, which I found at an estate sale, is a Doubleday hardcover. (There was a paperback edition.) She published two previous novels, also with titles evoking London geography: St. John's Wood and Mayfair. This book is concerned with the art world -- given her Museum experience, I wonder if the others were as well. I could not find any evidence of any novels besides those three, but Sean Wallace came to the rescue. It seems Fitzgerald's real name is Waverly Fitzgerald. She has published a number of nonfiction books, five humorous mysteries co-written with Curt Colbert as by Waverly Curtis, other mysteries under her own name, other historical fiction, and some short stories. She also teaches writing.

The nominal protagonists of the book are Cecily Hawthorne, a beautiful redheaded orphan who is serving as a governess; and Devin Shepard, a noted portrait painter, friend of all the famous painters of that time (Rossetti and Landseer and Morris and Alma-Tadema and Leighton and Millais and so on -- lots of name dropping though no convincing portrayals of the actual men). Shepard, who seems to be very well off, has just seen off a mistress/model and needs another one for his planned Royal Academy show entry. It so happens that when he tells his butler what sort of woman he wants for his picture, the butler mentions Cecily, who is in a very unsuitable situation (evil mother, nasty child).

Somewhat unconvincingly, Shepard finds Cecily and convinces her to come model for him. Things go nicely for a while, with (predictably) Cecily finding herself attracted to Shepard, but determined to preserve her virtue. She lucks into a different governess job when she gets made enough at Shepard to leave.

And then the real plot of the book is set in motion. Cecily's new place is with a silly woman, Mrs. Fluster, who has had an unexpected child in her 40s. Her first two children are a nice but plain girl who loves cooking, and a useless boy who has no interest in his father's business. The father had somehow lost control of his business, and the new owner is running it into the ground, and thus the family is close to bankruptcy. Their only hope is an American heiress who shows some interest in the boy. The household also includes a maid and a footman as comic relief -- and the two are besotted with each other.

The other key family is the Hollys, a fairly well to do but not really rich family with a plain daughter who is 32 and unmarried -- preventing her several sisters from marrying their various suitors. The mother decides that Devin Shepard would be a worthwhile husband -- but the daughter, Constance Holly, another plain but worthy woman, is convinced Shepard sees nothing in her. Add a young gigolo type who preys on married woman and who is chasing Mrs. Fluster; and a prig of a clerk who has decided he loves Cecily, though once he meets Mrs. Fluster's daughter he falls for her -- but can't give up his obsession with Cecily.

The arc of the novel is pretty clear -- the clerk will end up with the Fluster girl and will save the family business because as a clerk he at least understands business; Constance Holly and the gigolo type unexpectedly fall in love; the younger Fluster boy will end up with his American heiress; and the maid and footman of the Flusters will, after comical problems, get together. And of course Devin and Cecily will finally get together -- at the Royal Academy show in which Devin's picture of Cecily is exhibited.

That's just romance novel convention. But the novel doesn't really work. It wants to be a comedy, and tries and tries but so much of the comic business is overdone, and falls flat. The best comic character, Shepard's butler Willett, really doesn't have enough to do. The Fluster's maid, who befriends Cecily, is supposed to be really funny but mostly she just leadenly uses the wrong words. Mrs. Fluster and Lady Holly are likewise supposed to be funny but again, they are just labored cliches. The two plain young woman, Joconda Fluster and Constance Holly, are actually likeable characters, but minor. And Cecily and Devin are essentially ciphers -- their "romance" has no chemistry, it just doesn't convince.

One might also have hoped that the historical details would be solid, but they really don't work well either. As I noted, the artistic milieu is just sketched in -- name dropping -- I never believed it. And there are some howlers, as well. For example, the book is set in 1879, and Oscar Wilde is given a scene, which is perhaps not entirely impossible but seems unlikely, as he really didn't get established as an artistic figure until 1881. More seriously, the Fluster boy is supposed to be a candidate to buy a commission in the Army -- but the selling of commissions was ended in 1871.

All in all, this is a pretty weak example of the then flourishing romance genre. It does seem that Fitzgerald may have found her real metier in other genres since then, however.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Birthday Review: Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

Today is Alastair Reynolds' birthday. Last year I presented a collection of my reviews of his short fiction, so here instead is a review, from my old blog, of his second novel, Chasm City.

I have a copy of Alastair Reynolds' second novel, Chasm City, just out in England, for review at SF Site.  (Presumably it won't be published in the US until next year: his first novel, Revelation Space, published last year by Victor Gollancz, has just recently been published in the States.) Like Revelation Space it is very long (in this case over 260,000 words), and it is set in the same future.  Chasm City is the main city of the planet Yellowstone, which orbits Epsilon Eridani.  Some 7 years prior to the action of the book, it was devastated by the Melding Plague, which destroyed the nanomachines on which much of the high-tech infrastructure depended.  This places it some time prior to most of the action of Revelation Space.  (That book had a couple of threads on Yellowstone, one a flashback to decades prior to the Melding Plague, and one occurring a few years after the action of Chasm City. Most of Revelation Space is set still a few decades later, however.  Because travel in Reynolds' universe is restricted to sub-light speeds, and because his novels feature characters going between star systems, they tend to take place over long time frames.)  Tanner Mirabel comes to Yellowstone from Sky's Edge (a planet of 61 Cygni A -- it's nice to see all these classic SFnal star systems: Delta Pavonis also figures in Revelation Space), looking to kill Argent Reivich, who had killed the woman Tanner loved. 

The story unfolds in three threads, all nominally from Tanner's POV.  The first thread takes place over a rather short period in Chasm City as he looks for Reivich.  Another tells, in flashbacks, of Tanner's association with the arms dealer Cahuella back on Sky's Edge, and Cahuella's wife Gitta, and Reivich's attempt on Cahuella's life (in revenge for Cahuella supplying the weapons that killed Reivich's family), which led to Gitta's death.  Finally, Tanner has apparently been infected with an "indoctrination virus", which implants memories of Sky Hausmann, the sometimes revered, sometimes hated, last Captain of the first ship to reach Sky's Edge.  As those memories return to Tanner, at first in dreams, later more insistently, he learns a somewhat different, much stranger, story of the journey of the colonizing generation starships from Earth to 61 Cygni.

This is a better novel than Revelation Space, but it does have faults. First the good stuff: it's full of neat SFnal ideas, not necessarily brilliantly new, but very well realized: the generation ships (treated rather differently than usual in SF), some genetic technology, some alien ecosystem stuff, even a hint of a communication system reminiscent of the Dirac Communicator in James Blish's "Beep".  It sets up expectations for a pretty spectacular closing revelation, tying together the three threads, and pretty much delivers on those expectations.  The resolution had elements that I expected, and were nicely foreshadowed, plus elements that were a great surprise, but which still worked for me.  Thus, I'd say, that in terms of large-scale plot and setting, the book works very well.  As for the prose, it is sound, serviceable, hard SF prose: nothing impressive, but not too clunky either. The faults, then, lie in some small-scale plot elements, and in characterization. The plot, particularly Tanner's attempts to find Reivich, depends on a lot of implausible coincidence, or luck, or super-powerful characters who still don't kill their rivals when reasonably they should, or secret organizations suddenly being penetrated by little more than brandishing a gun in the face of underlings.  More tellingly, the characters are a bit undermotivated, and they are pretty much all evil and violent, but not really presented in such a way.  More than several times, we are told that such and such a character, single-mindedly bent on killing several other characters, is really not bad and is justified in so doing.  This seems to represent an awfully cynical view of humanity: everyone is purely out for number one, everyone is pretty much ready to kill anyone in their way.  Most particularly, the main character or characters (we can include Sky Hausmann), are objectively quite villainous, yet presented (well, not Sky, but Tanner) as quite sympathetic, in a way that doesn't really work.  Particularly as Tanner seems to have little enough trouble getting women to fall in love with him.  I should say that to an extent Reynolds gives explanations of some of these things (which it would be a spoiler to reveal), but that I was still not convinced.

On balance, though, a pretty impressive book.  The faults are the faults of much SF, especially hard SF, and the virtues are the virtues of the same sort of SF.  It doesn't, then, transcend its subgenre at all, but it does do very well within those boundaries.  And for a long book it reads smoothly enough, and keeps the interest.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories (and a novel) by Christopher Anvil

Christopher Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) was born 11 March 1925. He died in 2009. He began writing under his own name in 1952, but started selling to John Campbell in 1956 under the Anvil name. He became well known for very Campbellian "Stupid Aliens outsmarted by Smart Humans" stories. John Clute, in the Science Fiction Encylopedia, suggests that his non-Campbell stories show a more interesting side -- be that as it may, he was mostly a Campbell writer, kind of a low-rent Eric Frank Russell clone, and I confess I never found his work that interesting. Here's a look at a couple of his short stories, and a fixup novel

Astounding, December 1957

Anvil's "Truce by Boomerang" is a slight story, not really convincing even on its own terms, about a means of enforcing peace between neighboring nations. For some convoluted reason, a not very useful matter transmitter can be adapted to automatically return an missiles, etc., launched by one side to its own territory (perhaps explicitly to the big wigs' headquarters). I never really understood how this worked, however ...

Analog, July 1961

The other story is from Christopher Anvil: “The Hunch” (5300 words). Stellar Scout James Connolly is assigned to figure out why two new model scout ships have disappeared recently. Pirates are suspected, but the route they were taking avoided known pirate haunts.

He and his boss set out to follow the same route, and in so doing they encounter issues with the advanced new equipment on the new model ship … more or less the sort of mildly amusing stuff I expected.

Galaxy, October 1968

Christopher Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) was an Analog regular (I think of him as John Campbell's "Eric Frank Russell replacement"), and "Behind the Sandrat Hoax" really does look like a story aimed at Campbell. There is a persistent rumor that eating a sandrat on Mars will allow one to survive if marooned without water in the Martian desert, and when a man does survive in impossible circumstances, there is an investigation into how he might have survived. But the scientific authorities can't believe in the silly "sandrat" notion -- the man is sent to an asylum, while the scientist who dares to give some credence to the notion that eating a sandrat could help one get water in a desert has his career ruined, as a series of letters reveal the bureaucrats suppressing evidence, etc. A bit over-obvious, with over the top villains.

Pandora's Legions

(Cover by Patrick Turner)
I was warned.  Recently I mentioned that I might find something of interest in Eric Flint's planned reissue of some Christopher Anvil stories, and Greg Feeley asked, incredulously it seemed, why I would think these stories would be on any interest.  Well, you see, I'd hardly ever read any Anvil, only a story or two, and I don't mind Eric Frank Russell, held to be an influence on Anvil, and ... well, I was curious.  So I bought Pandora's Legions, a clumsy fixup novel consisting of one shorter novel and several short stories about the invasion of Earth by the Centran Empire, and the aftermath, as the Centrans try to deal with their uneasy new conquest.

It sucks.  To put it crudely.  It sucks bowling balls through a coffee stirrer. The story opens with a novelette published in Astounding in the mid-50s, "Pandora's Planet".  Earth is besieged by the overwhelmingly powerful Centrans, humanoid aliens who have a huge empire.  But them thar plucky Earthmen won't give up, and not only that, they are just plain smarter than Centrans.  The Centrans fear them for their brains, but they eventually realize that human intelligence carries a disadvantage: humans are less apt to cooperate with each other.  The Centrans end up winning, only by using incredible force of numbers, and they plot to take advantage of human intelligence by allowing humans to be spread thinly through part of their empire, hoping that the human ideas will be beneficial.  In a way, this story was OK, though not very good, as low-grade Eric Frank Russell imitation. 

In the early 70s Anvil expanded it into a novel.  In the novel, the humans spread through the Galaxy are portrayed as causing all sorts of chaos.  The viewpoint character,\ Centran general Klide Horsip, must deal with humans who have introduced fascism, rampant capitalism, communism, and all sorts of evils.  But humans, by subverting the Centrans on the planets they take over, are becoming way too strong.  Luckily, a loyal human has a plan ... an unconvincing one, mind you, but still.  More luckily still, all this is really what the true powers behind the Centran throne have intended all along.  Plus the climax involves a clumsily introduced menace that has historically kept Centrans from getting too smart.  Eh?  It's a bad novel.

Eric Flint has admitted that the novel is bad (or, at least, not real good). His solution?  He has interleaved a three mostly unconnected stories set in the same universe with the chapters of the novel.  These stories are Analog-style problem stories, where human John Towers, working for the Centrans, deals with problems in subverting other dangerous alien races, such as a race of teleporters, or a race of beings who have evolved to constantly fight for food and who will not communicate.  These are novelettes published in Analog in the 60s.  They aren't particularly good, though they aren't horrible.  They are, again, low-grad Eric Frank Russell imitations.  They are symptomatic of what was wrong with Analog in the 60s -- Campbell couldn't get Russell to write any more, it seems, and so he tried to find substitutes. Anvil was a substitute, but the ersatz nature of the product shows.  But mixed into the novel they are just silly.  They really don't fit.  Basically, you end up reading the novel in pieces, taking time out to read the novelettes. What was going through Flint's mind I have no idea.  There is also a short, added at the end, also set in the Centran empire but otherwise unconnected, which was apparently rejected by Campbell. It ran in If, and it's a screed against psychiatry.  It seems beating the patient until he is cured is a preferable approach.

Old Children's SF Book: Trapped in Space. by Jack Williamson

Old Children's Book: Trapped in Space. by Jack Williamson

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another old children's SF book. by a real legend of SF. Jack Williamson (1908-2006) published stories in 9 decades -- his first in 1928, his last 80 years later. He was popular from the first, and published major work in essentially all those decades, including a Science Fiction Hall of Fame story, "With Folded Hands" (1947), that still holds up even now; and a Nebula and Hugo winner as late as 2000. But in a funny way he was also always just slightly out of the mainstream of SF -- never listed with the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury as truly one of the greats; often somewhat forgotten. Part of this is merit, I think -- I thought his 2000 story "The Ultimate Earth", definitely not worthy of its awards. But part may reflect gaps in his production (he spent some time doing continuity for a comic strip, and lots of time teaching.)

(cover by Robert Amundsen)
As far as I know Williamson only wrote this one "juvenile". It was published by Doubleday in 1968, and reissued by Scholastic in 1970. I encountered several Scholastic SF books over the years (Silverberg's Revolt on Alpha C, Turner's Stranger from the Depths, Del Rey's The Runaway Robot (actually by Paul Fairman), and Key's The Forgotten Door)), but I had no idea Williamson had written one. I got this book at an antique mall.

So -- it's really not very good. One of the keys to writing a good YA book is to avoid the appearance of "writing down" to your presumed audience. Williamson fails utterly in that area -- the book is over simple, and full of somewhat pandering explanation. But more than that, the plot is kind of weak, too, and the science isn't all that great (though he at least tries.)

Jeff Stone is a young man, just graduating from pilot training at the Space School. His older brother Ben graduated two years before, and went on a mission to a new star system. (Apparently these missions have a 30% fatality rate!) Ben seems to be lost as well, and there is going to be a rescue mission. Rather implausibly, Jeff is chosen. He'll accompany a fellow recent graduate, plus a girl, Lupe Flor, who was raised by hive-mind aliens after her parents crashed on their planet, and Lupe's alien friend.

They head off to the planet Topaz, 1000 light years away. There's a certain amount of (actually tolerable) guff about how the FTL drive works -- artificially reducing mass (which really doesn't make any sense but whatevery). When they get to Topaz, they are immediately attacked ... and they also hear a message from Ben.

The main issue, really, is how to make contact with the aliens of this system, who seem to want to shoot first and ask questions never. And then to figure out what happened to Ben. Not surprisingly, Lupe's alien friend turns out to be vital.

The actual theme here, if laid on a bit heavy, is just fine -- the notion that all aliens, no matter how weird, even aliens who live in empty space, are fellow beings that we should be friends with. And in fact the novel's skeleton, advancing that notion, is just fine. The problem is the creaky rescue plot, and the annoyingly condescending writing style. Definitely a very minor entry in the Williamson oeuvre.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Birthday Review: Engaging the Enemy, by Elizabeth Moon

Engaging the Enemy, by Elizabeth Moon

a review by Rich Horton

Engaging the Enemy is the third in Moon's current series collectively called Vatta's War. I really liked Moon's first Mil-SF series, the Heris Serrano/Esmay Suiza books that eventually ran to 7 volumes. And I am really enjoying this series as well. That said, this book is pretty clearly a middle book, a chapter in a serial.

Ky Vatta is one of a few survivors of the successful interstellar trading company Vatta Transports. The bulk of that company was murdered in a coordinated attack by pirates in league with the government of their home planet, Slotter Key. Now it is clear that the pirates are attempting to control all of human space: they have destroyed much of the ansible network that connects various systems (all of which independent countries, basically), and they have taken over at least a couple star systems. Ky has managed to escape a couple of attempts on her life, and to defeat the pirates in a couple of small encounters. She has captured one pirate ship, the Fair Kaleen, which was captained by the slimy Osman Vatta, a cousin who was booted out of the family due to his nasty ways. Ky has also linked up with her beautiful cousin Stella, another survivor, and she assigns Stella to be captain of her original ship. And it wouldn't be a Moon space opera without Aunts in Space[tm], so back on Slotter Key, Aunt Grace, who is assumed to be a half-mad old bat, is working against the corrupt parts of the Slotter Key government.

The bulk of this book concerns Ky's attempts to organize resistance to the pirates, mainly by recruiting other privateers (Ky has a letter of marque from Slotter Key) to join her in forming an impromptu space navy. She is hindered in this by stupid governments who think the pirates will leave them alone if they just ignore things, and too by the individual crotchets and bloody-mindedness of the privateers. Stella is mad at her for various reasons as well, and then she runs into an old captain for Vatta who shockingly claims that she must be an imposter -- possibly a daughter of Osman Vatta who is impersonating the real Ky Vatta. The resolution to this last thread is a nice twist on what we expect. The other thread about the privateer navy leads to a nice concluding space battle. And back on Slotter Key Grace has made some progress in her attempts to root out the bad guys in local government and to begin rebuilding Vatta's position on planet.

I liked it because I like these books and this story and I root for Ky and Stella and Grace. That said this isn't the place to start -- begin at the beginning, with Trading in Danger. This latest book is mostly setting things in place for future books, which I imagine will involve bigger and better space battles, and interesting revelations about the bad guys (who are as usual for Moon pretty evull).

Hugo Nominations Post


Hugo Nomination Thoughts, 2020

Here’s my annual look at potential Hugo nominees. This will be short – not much discussion, and mostly about the short fiction.

First, my obligatory “Philosophy” disclaimer – though I participate with a lot of enjoyment in Hugo nomination and voting every year, I am philosophically convinced that there is no such thing as the “best” story – “best” piece of art, period. This doesn’t mean I don’t think some art is better than other art – I absolutely do think that. But I think that at the top, there is no way to draw fine distinctions, to insist on rankings. Different stories do different things, all worthwhile. I can readily change my own mind about which stories I prefer – it might depend on how important to me that “thing” they do is (and of course most stories do multiple different things!) – it might depend on my mood that day – it might depend on something new I’ve read that makes me think differently about a certain subject. And one more thing – I claim no special authority of my own. I have my own tastes, and indeed my own prejudices. So too does everyone else. I have blind spots, and I have things that affect me more profoundly than they might affect others. I’ve also read a lot of SF – and that changes my reactions to stories as well – and not in a way that need be considered privileged.

Short Fiction

Novella

I’ve not read as many of this year’s novellas as I should, so I don’t think this is really terribly representative. But here’s a list of novellas I really did like:

“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (F&SF, May-June)
Desdemona and the Deep, by C. S. E. Cooney (Tor.com Publishing)
The Menace from Farside, by Ian McDonald (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Savannah Problem”, by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog, January-February)
Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan (Tor.com Publishing)
“Glass Cannon”, by Yoon Ha Lee (Hexarchate Stories)
Alice Payne Arrives, Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
“Waterlines”, by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, July-August)
“How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots”, by Alexander Jablokov (Asimov’s, January-February)

The novella that got the most buzz this year, This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, though well-written, just didn’t ignite for me. And there are other novellas that I ought to read but haven’t gotten too.

Novelette

The top candidates for my ballot are: (and the order below is not my final order!)

"The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear", Kelly Link (Tin House, Summer)
"The Ocean Between the Leaves", Ray Nayler (Asimov’s, July-August)
"At the Fall", Alec Nevala-Lee (Analog, May-June)
"Cloud Born", by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, November)
"Anosognosia", John Crowley (And Go Like This)
"Secret Stories of Doors", Sofia Rhei (Everything is Made of Letters)
"A Country Called Winter", Theodora Goss (Snow White Learns Witchcraft)
“Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulus”, Rich Larson (F&SF, March-April)
“Ink, and Breath, and Spring”, by Frances Rowat (LCRW, November)

Short Story

Here are the stories I’m strongly considering:

                “Green Glass: A Love Story”, E. Lily Yu (If This Goes On)
                “Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad”, Cassandra Khaw (F&SF, July-August)
                “Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller (F&SF, Nov-Dec)
                “The Visible Frontier”, by Grace Seybold (Clarkesworld, July)
                “The Death of Fire Station 10”, by Ray Nayler (Lightspeed, October)
                “Tick Tock”, Xia Jia (Clarkesworld, May)
                “A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny, January-February)
                “Vis Delendi”, Marie Brennan (Uncanny, March-April)
                “The Fine Print”, Chinelo Onwualu (New Suns)
                "Cloud", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, November-December)


Best Novel

Every year I mention that I haven’t read a lot of novels. More so than ever this year! There are only a couple that I got too, and I’ll mention them while acknowledging that there are tons more great novels out there. But, anyway, I was quite impressed by A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine; and by The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz.

Fan Categories

In the remaining categories (as, really, with all the categories except short fiction) I do want to emphasize what may be obvious – these are people and things that I personally enjoyed, but I know there’s a lot of excellent work I’ve missed. I’ll be nominating things that impressed me, but I’ll be glad to check out the stuff other people nominate.

Best Fan Writer

I’ll reiterate my admiration for John Boston and John O’Neill. John Boston’s most publicly available recent stuff is at Galactic Journey, where he reviews issues of Amazing from 55 years ago, month by month. (It will be noted, perhaps, that I also review issues of Amazing from the same period, at Black Gate.) John’s work there is linked by this tag: http://galacticjourney.org/tag/john-boston/.
As for John O’Neill, of course his central contribution is as editor of Black Gate, for which he writes a great deal of the content, often about, “vintage” books he’s found on Ebay or at conventions, and also about upcoming fantasy books.

Another Black Gate writer, and fan writer in general, who did great work last year was Steven Silver, particularly his “Golden Age Reviews”.

I should also mention Charles Payseur, a very worthy Fan Writer nominee the last two years, whose Quick Sip reviews of short fiction should not be missed.

And as for myself, I too am a fan writer (at least my blog writing and my stuff for Black Gate qualifies, if perhaps not my work for Locus, which I guess is now officially professional). I was pretty proud of my writing last year. I would note in particular my reviews of old magazines at Black Gate, particularly Amazing and Fantastic in the Cele Goldsmith Lalli era, and my various reviews of Ace Doubles (and other SF) at my blog Strange at Ecbatan (rrhorton.blogspot.com) (and often linked from Black Gate.) The other thing I did this year at my blog was a set of “Golden Age Reviews” of my own, inspired by Steven’s series, in which I covered the works that won awards in 1973, the year I turned 13.

Best Fanzine

As I did last year, I plan to nominate Black Gate, Galactic Journey, and Rocket Stack Rank for the Best Fanzine Hugo. I’m particularly partial in this context to Black Gate, primarily of course because I have been a contributor since the print days (issue #2 and most of the subsequent issues). Black Gate is notable for publishing a lot of content on a very wide variety of topics, from promoting new book releases to publishing occasional original and reprinted fiction to reviewing old issues of Galaxy (Matthew Wuertz) and Amazing/Fantastic/etc. (me) to intriguing posts about travel and architecture by Sean MacLachlan. Rocket Stack Rank and Galactic Journey are a bit more tightly focused: the former primarily reviews and rates short fiction, as well as assembling statistics about other reviewers (myself included) and their reactions to the stories; while the latter, as I mentioned above, is reviewing old SF magazines from 55 years past.

Finally, I’ll mention the other SF-oriented site I read and enjoy regularly – File 770 (http://file770.com/ ), which is (deservedly) very well known, having been nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo numerous times and having won some as well.

Astounding Award

The newly renamed award for Best New WriterThis is given to the best writer whose first professional publication in the SF or Fantasy field appeared in the past two years (2018 or 2019). The best lists now are at Rocket Stack Rank (for short fiction) and the Astounding Award site itself (for novels.)

I went through those lists and came up with the following writers who have done something that impressed me:

Rammel Chan
Allison Mulvihill
P. H. Lee
Corey Flintoff
Bryan Camp
S. Woodson
Louis Evans



Sunday, March 1, 2020

Birthday Review: Declare, by Tim Powers

I would say this Birthday Review is belated, but I imagine Tim Powers is used to his birthday being celebrated a day late, as he was born on Leap Day. This is what I wrote about Declare back in 2001 -- it's one of my favorite of his novels, though I still consider The Anubis Gates, one of my favorite novels ever, as his best.

Declare, by Tim Powers

a review by Rich Horton

Tim Powers' Declare was my vacation reading this year [2001], which isn't really great for a book because I don't do that much reading on vacation -- too much time in the car, or at touristy spots, and besides, hotel rooms are typically not well set up for comfy reading. So it took me a while to finish -- possibly not the best thing for a book. Still, I liked it.

It opens with a brief scene featuring a British Intelligence Captain driving a Jeep down Mt. Ararat in 1948, fleeing the deaths of several of his comrades. Then we switch to 1963, and we meet Andrew Hale, who, we learn soon enough, was that Captain in 1948. He's a lecturer in English at a University, but his past in Intelligence has caught up with him. He's told by secret means to meet with his mysterious supervisor/recruiter at the shady, unofficial, branch of the British Intelligence that he has been a member of, and he learns that he is being provided with a rather uncomfortably cover -- he's being charged with treason and murder, which will make his flight to Kuwait and subsequent offer of his services to the Soviets more credible. The real reason for all this is that in 1948 his mission was to foil whatever the Soviets were trying on Mt. Ararat -- but while he managed to foul up their plans, they also fouled up his plans, in part due to the treachery of Kim Philby, so that the potential for the Soviets to achieve what they want remains -- and now, in 1963, they are ready to try again.

From there the story proceeds on multiple timelines. We learn in flashbacks of Hale's past -- his mysterious birth in Palestine, his Catholic upbringing by a single mother in the English countryside, his recruitment into a curious side branch of British Intelligence and his first assignment -- to let himself be recruited as a Soviet agent, to work in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941. In Paris his partner agent is a beautiful young Spaniard named Elena Ceniza-Bendiga,and she and Andrew fall in love, but she makes clear that her first allegiance is to international communism. So when the Nazis find them out, and they escape and are ordered to Moscow, presumably to be killed as blown agents, he ducks out on her and returns to England, where he learns, more or less, what's really going on. There follow episodes in Berlin in 1945, where Hale meets Elena again, as well as Kim Philby, the highly placed spy who Hale has always disliked and mistrusted.  The three meet again on Ararat in 1948, when Hale learns conclusively that Philby is a traitor, and also becomes convinced that Elena has learned to hate him.

A parallel path follows Hale's adventures in the Middle East in 1963, as he manages to get recruited by the Soviets for theor new attempt at -- I won't say what -- on Mr. Ararat. This involves trips to mysterious cities in the desert, meetings with curious entities, and another meeting with Elena and with Kim Philby, who has finally been exposed publically as a spy, and who is looking for escape -- either to France or Russia. Finally, as we have known, the strange operation called Declare will be resolved, one way or another, on the slopes of Mt. Ararat, near a curious long buried wooden object -- perhaps a ship.

The book is always intriguing, and full of clever supernatural ideas. The central supernatural entities here are djinni -- which Powers links to fallen angels. He ties this in with the true stories of Kim Philby and his father, and with T. E. Lawrence, and with some mysterious cities in the Arabian Desert, and with meteorites, and spies, and Catholicism. I found this all well-imagined, and consistent and comprehensible in a way that, for example, the ghosts in Expiration Date never managed to be for me. There is also the love story between Elena and Andrew, which is well-told and very well resolved, but which didn't fully work for me, as the emotional element of it never quite came to life for me. I think the other slight weakness in the novel is a certain implausibility in some of the spy stuff -- basically, it seemed to me that Hale's cover would never have held up as well as it did -- the Russians would have got just a bit skittish, and shot him out of hand. Not that I'd know. Powers also manages to work in some of his other recurring themes -- poker, and the injured hero, for two. It's a very solid effort, just a whisker short of being exceptional, and it takes a place in my pantheon of Powers' books at the second level -- below my favorite, The Anubis Gates, but ranged somewhere with The Stress of Her Regard and On Stranger Tides as among the next best.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Birthday Review: The Bell at Sealey Head, by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia McKillip's 18th birthday is today -- which of course means she has just turned 72. In her honor, I'm reposting a review I did of her 2008 novel The Bell at Sealey Head for Fantasy Magazine. I note that I compared here regularity of production back then to Van Morrison -- but since that book she's only published two more novels, in 2010 and 2016, alas.


The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip (Ace, 978-0-441-01756-0, $14, tpb, 279 pages) September 2009 (originally published September 2008).

A review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Kinuko Y. Craft)
I think of Patricia Mc Killip a little like I think of Van Morrison in music. Which is really not a terribly useful comparison, because I don’t mean it to apply to their mutual styles … rather, I mean to say that McKillip is one of those writers who reliably issues a novel every year or two, always enjoyable work. In the same way I look for a new Van Morrison album every year or two, and they are always enjoyable. Now it can also be said the McKillip’s novels, as with Morrison’s latter period works, are fairly small scale affairs, and while they show a certain range and a willingness to try different things, they aren’t groundbreaking masterpieces, either. (But as McKillip has the Riddle Master books early in her career, and the utterly gorgeous Winter Rose somewhat later, so Morrison has Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. Though here the comparison rather breaks down, because fine as The Riddle Master of Hed is, it’s no Astral Weeks. Which is hardly an insult – Astral Weeks being arguably the greatest album ever to come out of the pop/rock idiom.)

But I’m getting a bit silly and off track. As I implied, the latter day McKillip novels are not earthshaking. But they are still lovely, and sweet, and involving. Sometimes there are no villains at all, and even when there is a villain (as with The Bell at Sealey Head) he’s not very much the focus (and he has at least one redeeming quality).

The Bell at Sealey Head features three viewpoint characters. Judd Cauley is the innkeeper for the Inn at Sealey Head, a place that’s seen better times. His aged father is blind, and Judd barely keeps the Inn going while caring for this father and coping with his old retainers, particular the cook, who is quite awful. Meanwhile Gwyneth Blair is the bookish daughter of Sealey Head’s leading merchant. Her mother is dead, so she keeps tabs on her younger siblings – adolescent twins and a toddler – with the not always welcome help of her Aunt, while spending what spare time she has writing stories. And Emma is a maid at Aislinn House, the seat of the dying Lady Eglantyne. Emma’s mother is a wood witch named Hester. But Emma’s real secret is Ysabo, a young woman she sees through various doors in the house. Ysabo seems to live in an alternate Aislinn House, occupied by her mother and grandmother and a crowd of knights, all obsessed by rigid ritual.

We quickly learn that Judd is sweet on Gwyneth, and that Gwyneth returns his affection, though neither really knows how the other feels. Gwyneth’s Aunt is determined to match her with Raven Sproule, the local gentry, and Raven’s sister Daria is also in favor of the match. Emma’s household awaits the arrival of Lady Eglantyne’s heir, Miranda Beryl. And Ysabo is being forced into marriage with one of the knights, whose name she doesn’t even know. Then Judd gets a rare guest – Ridley Dow, a young scholar from the big city (Landringham), who is interested in magic, and in particular in the mysterious bell that rings at Sealey Head every sunset. Legend has it the bell was on a ship that sunk off the Head, but Ridley has other ideas, ideas that involve Aislinn House. And now Miranda Beryl is finally coming to her Aunt’s house, with a pile of idle Landringham friends, many of whom will stay at the Inn, which means Judd need a real cook …

And so the real action begins. Which I don’t propose to further summarize. Of course we will learn Ysabo’s secret, and that of her version of Aislinn House. And we get to read Gwyneth’s newest story, which concerns the Bell. And the lives of Gwyneth and Judd and Raven and Daria and Emma and Ysabo and Miranda and Ridley all change, mostly for the better …

So what do we have? A very sweetly enjoyable book. A pleasure to read through and through. Not to oversell it – it’s nothing earthshaking, it’s nothing really terribly new, it won’t convince people who haven’t much cared for McKillip’s work to date to convert, any more than, say, Hymns to the Silence likely caused any huge swell of support for Van Morrison. But not to undersell it – as ever with McKillip, the prose is elegant, limpid, lovely – if not as astonishing as in for example the incomparable Winter Rose; the characters if perhaps mostly just a bit domesticated remain quite real; and there are some nice fantastical ideas, particularly the otherworldly Aislinn House and its strangled routine.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Birthday Review: Claremont Tales II (plus more short stories), by Richard A. Lupoff

Today is Dick Lupoff's 85th birthday. Lupoff is a science fiction and mystery writer of considerable accomplishment, a winner of a Hugo (with his wife Pat) for his great fanzine Xero, and an expert on such subjects as comics, pulps, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (among many more things.) I reviewed a wonder anthology of work from Xero here: Review of The Best of Xero.

Below is a reproduction of a review I did of his short story collection Claremont Tales II (originally at SF Site), as well as a couple more reviews I did of his short stories, one in a retro review of the 1970s Cosmos, and another Locus review of Weird Tales.

Claremont Tales II, by Richard A. Lupoff

a review by Rich Horton

Add caption
Veteran SF and Mystery writer Richard A. Lupoff is back with a second retrospective collection of his best short fiction. Last year, Golden Gryphon published Claremont Tales, and now we see Claremont Tales II. This collects several fairly early stories (1969 through 1978), and some recent stories (including a brand new story for this book).

Immediately noticeable is Lupoff's versatility. Included are some straight SF, some supernatural horror (two stories, at least, fairly directly influenced by Lovecraft), and some straight mystery stories, as well as some amalgams of all of the above. Always noticeable, too, is Lupoff's assured storyteller's touch, his engaging voice, and his ability to alter that voice in service of his aims, most notably here in "The Adventure of the Boulevard Assassin", a Sherlock Holmes story written in the style of Jack Kerouac. (Back in the 70s, Lupoff attracted some notice with a series of SF stories pastiching various author's styles, all written as by "Ova Hamlet".)

The above-mentioned Holmes piece, a very sly divertissement, is one of the more impressive entries here. I also quite liked "Jubilee", an Alternate History of a Roman Empire where Julius Caesar survived his assassination attempt. And despite my general lack of sympathy for Lovecraft, I was rather taken with the two Lovecraftian pieces in Claremont Tales II, "The Devil's Hop Yard" and "The Turret". The new story in this book is "Green Ice", a sequel to an earlier story called "Black Mist". This is an SF mystery, in which Japanese-Martian detective Ino Hajime is called in to investigate the activities of a descendant cult to Aum Shinrikyo (the Japanese cult which perpetrated a poison gas attack on a subway a few years past) on the Jovian moon Europa. It's an intriguing, rather mystical, story, which perhaps leaps a bit too quickly to its conclusion, but which is a good read nonetheless. "31.12.99" is an evocative and moving story of the new millennium. "News from New Providence" is a somewhat mordant account of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor investigating a murder in the Bahamas. "Whatever Happened to Nick Neptune?" is a very enjoyable story of a very special pulp magazine. And so on -- top to bottom this is an extremely enjoyable collection.

Somewhat shamefacedly I must confess to having mostly lost track of Mr. Lupoff's career in recent years. I had been quite impressed with his novella from Again, Dangerous Visions, "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama"; and I quite enjoyed the Ova Hamlet pastiches. I also took notice of "Black Mist" and "31.12.99" in their recent appearances. But I have missed the rest of his work recently -- apparently including a linked series of mystery novels. (A related short story is included here.) This book is evidence that he remains a forceful and worthwhile writer -- check it out.

Cosmos, September 1977

Lupoff's "The Child's Story" is a far future story, about a group of very different (from each other) posthumans, returning to Earth for a visit -- with rather different motives. It's not a bad attempt at portraying posthumanity.

Locus, September 2006

My favorite from Weird Tales for August-September, however, is a moving semi-autobiographical story by Richard Lupoff, “Fourth Avenue Interlude”, about a boy in love with books who helps out in an old New York City bookstore, and the wonderful discovery he makes – but the wonderful discovery isn’t the point: or only to the extent that what he really discovers is the pleasures of all sorts of stories.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Holy Fire, by Bruce Sterling

James Wallace Harris writes the excellent blog Auxiliary Memory, in which he discusses many different things, including such subjects close to my heart as SF (and short SF), and also forgotten popular fiction. One of his interests is a writer named Lady Dorothy Mills, who wrote popular travel books and novels mostly in the 1920s. James has a webpage about Mills: Lady Dorothy Mills , and recently posted about her on his blog. Here's a post he wrote for the site Book Riot about Mills, as reprinted on his blog: The Resurrection of Lady Dorothy Mills, in which he mentions her 1926 SF novel Phoenix, which he compared in theme to Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire. He wondered if anyone in his circle had read the latter -- and of course I had, and I knew I'd reviewed it, and I realized I'd never reposted my review after my old webpage went away.

So here is that review, from way back in 1996, one of the earliest book reviews I posted. (And next, try to find a copy of Phoenix -- which might not be easy! Though it should be in the public domain next year.)

Holy Fire, by Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, October 1996, $22.95 US

ISBN: 0553099582

a review by Rich Horton

Holy Fire is a pretty impressive novel. Sterling really packs ideas onto the page! He furnishes his setting with detail after telling detail: there is a much greater sense, seems to me, that the future being depicted is really in the future, and not just now + a few changes, as in so many SF books. And the details are cleverly backgrounded: offhandedly mentioned here, revealed by a turn of phrase there, implied by a description...(Also, he does stop and lecture on occasion: but the lectures are interesting, not distracting, and important to his story.) Anyway, the way Sterling does this stuff is great fun (in his short fiction too), and he's pretty good at little jokes on the one hand, and telling aphorisms on the other hand.

Holy Fire is set 100 years in the future, and the main character is a woman born in 2001 (a symbolic date, I'm sure; as the fact that the book opens with the death of her former lover, born in 1999, is symbolic too). This woman, Mia Ziemann, after attending her lover's "funeral", and receiving a mysterious "gift" from him (the password to his questionably legal Memory Palace) (a MacGuffin if there ever was one!) undergoes a crisis of sorts and decides that it is time to cash in her chips, as it were, and undergo the radical life-extension treatment which she has been planning. She comes out of the treatment a young woman in appearance, and a different person in attitude, and with a different name (Maya). As a result, she runs off (illegally) to Europe, trying to live the life of the late-21st century young people (it seems). The rest of the book follows her somewhat rambling adventures with a variety of Europeans, young and old, as well as eventually getting around to the meaning of the MacGuff -- er, I mean, Memory Palace.

The book is very strong on the description and rationale for the culture and economics of a future dominated by medical treatment, life-extension methods, and (as a result of the previous two), old people. Sterling knows that if people live a long time, society will be very different, and he does a good job showing us one way it might be different. His views of both young (say, up to 60 or so) and old (up to 120 or more at the time of the book) people are very well done. Part of the book is an attempt to get at what the difference between a society of very-long-lived people (like up to 150 years or so), and a society of near-immortals (up to 1500 years or more) might be: and here he waves his hand at some neat ideas but kind of fails to really convince.

Throughout it is readable, interesting, and funny. The resolution is solid, though as I have suggested, he waves at a more "transcendental" ending, and doesn't really succeed there. But Maya's story is honest and convincing, though Maya as a character is a little harder to believe. She seems to be whatever the plot needs her to be at certain times: this is partly explainable by the very real physical and psychological changes she must be undergoing: but at times it seems rather arbitrary.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Birthday Review: Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks

Today would have been Iain Banks' 66th birthday. Sadly, he died 7 years ago. He was one of the most interesting and enjoyable SF writers, and also a fine writer of contemporary fiction. Here's a review I did of one of his earlier novels, a non-Culture novel, but very much SF. I wrote this way back in 1996.

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Bantam Spectra, 1995 (originally published in 1994 in the UK)
ISBN: 0-553-37459-1

a review by Rich Horton

Iain M. Banks has been publishing SF novels for the past several years, as well as publishing mainstream novels (with horror and/or slipstream SF facets) as by Iain Banks. He has received considerable praise in both genres, but for one reason or another, I have yet to read one of his books until now.

Banks` SF has mostly been set in a far future dominated by the "Culture", a galactic scale group of races, including humans, who apparently inhabit huge starships. Feersum Endjinn, his latest book, isn't part of this future. At the time of the action (which occurs over a couple of days, or several decades, depending on how you measure it), the Earth of the very far future is inhabited by the descendants of those who stayed when most humans traveled to the stars in the "Diaspora". Earth is dominated by an aristocratic class, based in a huge castle, so large that the highest tower extends into space, and the King`s residence, a large "palace", is contained within a chandelier of the greater castle. Ordinary humans are allowed 8 normal lifespans (copies apparently made of their brains` contents at the time of death), after which they are allowed 8 additional "lives" in a sort of virtual reality maintained in the global computer net, after which their personality becomes a component of the AI complex which "is" the net (or "crypt" as Banks cleverly calls it.) At the time of the action, Earth is threatened both by the Encroachment, a dust cloud which will swallow the Sun in a few centuries, and by a virus which is infecting the Crypt. Possible solutions to these problems were left by the humans of the Diaspora, but the means of access to these solutions has been forgotten.

The story is told in four threads, following four main characters: a mysterious, nameless woman, who is soon revealed as a messenger from the Crypt; the King`s Chief Scientist, Hortis Gadfium, who is part of a conspiracy which has been trying to discover the hidden solution to the problem of the Encroachment; an aristocrat and loyal general of the King`s, Alandre Sessine, who is on the point of discovering that the King and his advisors are obstructing progress towards solving the problem of the Encroachment, apparently because such progress is a threat to the status quo, and who is assassinated multiple times, both in real life and post-death virtual reality, for his pains; and finally, Bascule, a young, innocent "teller", that is, one who communicates with the Crypt as part of his job, who is also "recruited" by the Crypt to help find the solution to the encroachment problem.

These four threads are soon seen to be quests which will converge on each other. Much time is spent exploring both the physical and virtual reality of this far future Earth. The resolution is logical and satisfying, and the last line of the book is marvelous.

The strength of this book is the colorful presentation of a truly strange future world. I also found the "Virtual Reality" of the Crypt internally convincing, in a way I often don`t (i.e. I could never really believe in William Gibson`s visions of Cyberspace.) That isn`t to say that Banks has provided rock solid scientific rationales for the elements of this future world: far from it, but he makes us happily suspend disbelief in a lot of unlikely things, partly simply by setting the story so far in the future. In addition, Banks is an excellent and audacious writer. The Bascule sections of the novel are told in a compressed prose, abbreviating words phonetically in Bascule's (I am told) south England accent (like feersum endjinn for fearsome engine), also using numbers and symbols. This is initially difficult to follow, but I picked up on it pretty quickly, and I thought it was vital to providing Bascule an individual voice.

In summary, I loved this book. It is over the top, but in a good way, and Banks makes it all work.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Birthday Review: The Pickup Artist, and short stories, by Terry Bisson

Today is Terry Bisson's birthday. In his honor, here's a review from my old SFF Net group of his novel The Pickup Artist, plus several reviews I've done of his short fiction for my Locus column.

Review of The Pickup Artist

Terry Bisson's new novel, The Pickup Artist, is an interesting, odd, novel that reminded me strongly of Jonathan Lethem, particularly, for some reason, Amnesia Moon.  At the opening it seems almost a straightforward commentary by SFnal means on a theme reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 (though at core very different), but by the end it has become a road novel through a very strange next century America. 

The title character is Hank Shapiro, who works for the government confiscating works of art which have been "deleted".  It has been determined that contemporary artists are unfairly at a disadvantage in "competition" with the weight of all the works of literature, painting, acting, etc. from the past, and each month, a randomly selected set of authors, musicians, movies, painters and so on is "deleted", and all their works are supposed to be destroyed.  Shapiro and his fellow "pickup artists" travel to people's homes who are reported to own copies of deleted videos, records, and books, and confiscated the works (while compensating the owners). 

Hank's dog is dying, and his mother is dead, and his father, who named him for the legendary country singer Hank Williams, left long ago.  The combined effects of all these lead him to a criminal act -- when he confiscates a Hank Williams record he decides to try to find a record player on which to listen to it -- just once -- before turning it in.  Before long he's involved with a long-pregnant librarian named Henry, and with a series of identical Indians named Bob, and he's breaking into a veterinary hospital to rescue his dog from euthanasia, and his Hank Williams record has been stolen, possibly by one of the Alexandrians (Library version) who apparently try to rescue deleted artwork.  So Hank and Henry and the corpse of Indian Bob and the dying dog start to chase the record across the country, through flea markets and abandoned casinos and abandoned highways to the independent city state of Vegas.

Alternating short chapters tell the history of the move for "deletion", which began with terrorist destruction of paintings at museums, and continued with the support of a mysterious figure who seems to be Bill Gates (as well as SFWA!) and an aging actress and a trial of the accidental killers of a number of people at a museum.

The telling of this story is continually interesting, and the characters are quirky and involving if not quite ever real.  The plot is discursive and really doesn't go much of anywhere, and the social background is interesting but not coherent.  Much gives off the sense of being made of as it goes along.  What seems to be the central argument, concerning the morality of this "deletion" and perhaps the "anxiety of influence" or something, is never really engaged, but the book is still about something -- about death, I think, and perhaps about art as a release from a dead life.  I don't get the sense of a completed argument, or even, really, a completed book -- but an interesting effort in both areas.

Review of SF Age, September 1998

the latest SF Age, September, is a fine issue.  It has a neat Terry Bisson story, "First Fire", which plays clever hommage to one of the most famous SF stories of all time (I won't say which, as that would be a spoiler)

Locus, October 2003

Terry Bisson's "Almost Home" tells of a boy in a small town, and his closest friends, an athletic kid named Bug, and a sickly girl named Toute. The boy discerns the outline of an aeroplane among the fencing and buildings of an abandoned racetrack, and in magical fashion the three kids bring it to life, and fly ... well, somewhere else: things in this world are stranger than at first they seem. Sweet and moving, but also quite spooky.

Terry Bisson also has a worthy novella at Sci Fiction in September. "Greetings" is the story of two 70ish men, close friends, long-time radicals, who have just received notice that they are scheduled for euthanasia. They refuse the option of a communal death and decide to commit suicide in the company of their wives, and a government observer, of course. But things don't go quite as planned ... Bisson's social future as presented is creepy, but the story doesn't seem much concerned with arguing the pros or cons of government-mandated euthanasia -- though the story does ask us to think about it. The heart of the story is in the characters, though, and in the ironic working out of events.

Locus, February 2006

With the February F&SF Terry Bisson’s long novella “Planet of Mystery” is concluded. This is a rather strange story set on a decidedly implausible Venus. (Oddly, and probably not very sensibly, I was reminded of the Ace Double To Venus! To Venus!, by “David Grinnell” (Donald A. Wollheim).) A pair of astronauts from a combined U.S./Chinese mission reach Venus, and to their shock crash land in a shallow lake. The air is breathable, and the temperature tolerable. Soon they encounter centaurs and beautiful Amazon women. The mission commander decides that he is hallucinating, and only contact with the orbiter keeps him sane – he thinks. But the strangeness multiplies – before long a flying saucer is in the picture … It’s just a very weird story, maybe in the end a bit too weird, too disconnected, to really satisfy. But I did enjoy myself.

Locus, August 2006

A few stories in the August F&SF are purely comic, and nicely so. In Terry Bisson’s “Billy and the Spacemen”, homicidal little Billy saves the world from invasion.

Locus, October 2006

Interzone for August has a fine mathematical fantasia from Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson, “2 + 2 = 5”, in which a mathematician proves that there are holes in the number system; and another story about numbers,

Locus, October 2008

I also liked Terry Bisson’s “Private Eye”, in which a man who is a host for people who log on to look through his eyes meets a woman with a similar secret of her own. Bisson quite sweetly charts the public and private progress of their relationship.