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 her regularity of production back then to Van Morrison -- but since that book she's only published two more novels, in 2010 and 2016, alas.

[Coda: Patricia McKillip died on May 6, 2022. A wonderful writer! Rest in peace, and thanks for all the pleasure you gave us!]

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 wonderful 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.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is certainly one of the most exciting writers to appear in the field this past decade. Today is his birthday, so here's a collection of my reviews of his work from Locus.

Locus, February 2014

I was woefully neglectful of Electric Velocipede this year, and alas I must report that John Klima has decided to close the 'zine down after 27 issues, print and online. This was one of the most successful small 'zines in the field, winner of a 2009 Hugo for Best Fanzine. The final issue, Winter 2013, features “The Beasts We Want to Be”, by Sam J. Miller, a strong SF horror story set in an alternate post-Revolution Russia, told by a “Broken” soldier, who has been conditioned in a “Pavlov's Box” to serve the goals of the Revolution, as he commandeers the artwork of an aristocratic family, then finds himself drawn to save a woman of that family from reconditioning, and then to save a painting of her husband. Very dark stuff.

Locus, September 2016

Sam J. Miller’s “Things With Beards” (Clarkesworld, June) riffs on a rather scarier story about a form of alien contact, a story that has been successfully riffed on before, in both movies and an excellent recent Peter Watts tale. So the title tells you which story, right? And hints at what Miller is doing, quite ambitiously, as his protagonist, back from the Antarctic, a somewhat closeted gay man in the early ‘80s, at the onset of the AIDS crisis, also engages with a protest movement against police violence, and wonders what is happening to him when he forgets hours at a time. It’s interesting to see Miller using the metaphor of a shape-changing alien monster so bravely –  a worthwhile new take on a classic.

Locus, December 2017’s two October originals are both pretty strong stories. “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller is told in two sections by Otto, a gay man in near future New York, who lives with his boyfriend Trevor, who rescued him from drug addiction and who keeps him (so to speak) straight. At a party Otto falls in lust with a friend’s brother, Aarav, as the guests discuss what they are doing with programmable matter. The second part is set not too long later, in a much-changed world – it seems that programmable matter has run amok and destroyed much of the world. Trevor is dead, and Otto is in a refugee camp. There he encounters Aarav again, now blinded, and he contemplates how to deal with him – after their encounter, which it turns out went horribly wrong for Otto, but does that matter now? The story is absolutely convincing in portraying Otto, and his relationship with Trevor and his abortive connection with Aarav – but the SF side, the programmable matter and the disaster it causes, seems thin and unconvincing.

Locus, July 2018

Sam J. Miller makes his first appearance in Analog with a moving story, “My Base Pair”, about Thatch, who is trying to reconnect with his long-lost childhood friend, Kenji. Kenji is a “hacksperm”: born with the stolen genes of a celebrity (Tom Cruise), and in an environment where vicious prejudice against such children is rife, he has disappeared. Thatch has become an investigator into the criminal aspects of that practice, perhaps not realizing how his work might actually increase the oppression the innocent children of stolen genetic material face. He has tracked down an illegal fight between another “cruise” and someone he hopes is Kenji, and he tries to finagle information about Kenji’s location from this other man. The story intertwines Thatch’s memories of his childhood times with his friend, and his more recent painful memories of an affair with a journalist investigation the whole issue. It’s very strong on the personal aspects of Thatch’s life, and very interesting on some of the scientific and social ramifications of the “hacksperm” tech, but perhaps doesn’t quite convince on the truly vicious legal and societal reaction to the (innocent) children.

Locus, November 2019

Sam J. Miller’s “Shucked” (F&SF, November-December) is a first-rate horror story. Adney and her boyfriend Teek are on vacation in Italy, and she’s wondering if their relationship is real besides the sex. Then a somewhat creepy older men approaches them with an offer – he’ll pay her for an hour of Teek’s time. Somehow Adney convinces herself to accept the offer – Teek apparently doesn’t mind … but this can’t end well, can it? This is an example of a writer using a fairly familiar idea (which I won’t spoil) so artfully that it becomes newly effective. Strong work.

Birthday Review: The Sweetheart Season, by Karen Joy Fowler

Today is Karen Joy Fowler's birthday. Last year I presented a summary of my reviews of her short fiction; so this year I'm resurrecting a review I did back in 1997 (I think one of the very first reviews I did for widish consumption) of her lovely second novel.

The Sweetheart Season, by Karen Joy Fowler
Henry Holt, 1996
ISBN 0-8050-4737-9

Karen Joy Fowler's first novel, Sarah Canary, is a marvel, an amazing, original novel about aliens, of all sorts, in the 1870's American West. It is extraordinarily assured, the best first novel I've read in a long time - indeed, in my opinion, at least arguably the best SF first novel of the nineties. Obviously, I have eagerly anticipated Fowler's second novel, which has now appeared: The Sweetheart Season.

Categorization of Fowler's work in a generic sense has always been difficult: perhaps a better word would be pointless. That said, most of her stories, for me, read best as SF or fabulations, but she is clearly enough a writer who appeals to non-SF readers as well. Sarah Canary is readable as a "mainstream" novel, though I think it is best read as SF; in John Clute's words, it is a First Contact story. The Sweetheart Season, by contrast, seems clearly a "mainstream" novel to me, though one could define certain of the events of the story as fantastical if one insisted.

The story concerns a small town in northern Minnesota, Magrit, home to a grain mill and an associated cereal business. It is set in 1947. The viewpoint character is Irini Doyle, though the story is told in the "voice" of her daughter, retelling Irini's story from a present day perspective. Irini lives with her alcoholic father (her mother is dead), who is a research chemist at the cereal company. Irini works in the Research Kitchen of the cereal company. The other characters are her co-workers (all women) in the Kitchen, as well as the company founder, his wife, and his grandson, and a few other local women.

The main action of the novel revolves somewhat loosely around a promotional scheme of the founder: the girls at the company form a baseball team, which barnstorms through Minnesota and Wisconsin, purportedly demonstrating the nutritive benefits of the company's cereal by their success. Several other narrative threads are woven into the story: the writing of a continuing promotional kitchen/life advice column by the fictional Maggie Collins, a sort of Betty Crocker-type spokesperson for the cereal company; the antagonism between the former residents of Upper Magrit (submerged to make the mill) and Lower Magrit (where everyone now lives); the involvement of the mill owner's wife with Gandhi and the Indian independence movement; the efforts of the local women to find love and husbands in a town left nearly male-free by the war; and a mysterious (young, male) visitor to Magrit. All of these threads are well-integrated with the novel's theme, as I read it: essentially: the nascent "Women's Liberation" movement, though that over-simplifies: but the focus on the "Kitchen", yet in the context of women who are all working, and playing a nominally male sport, combined with the ironic voice of the present day narrator, and the ironic-in-this-context quotes from Maggie Collins' women's magazine advice column, quite nicely merge to make simple, true, statements about the position of women in 1947, and in our time.

The female characters are very well drawn, and almost invariably engaging. A couple of the male characters come off as ciphers, but the portraits of Irini's father, and of old Henry Collins, the mill owner, are very good. Fowler's prose is clean and elegant. Her narrative voice is a delight: ironic, affectionate, knowing, often very funny. One brief quote, from one of Maggie Collins' advice columns, meant to be read in the context of the decision to form a baseball team: "Polls have recently confirmed what has long been suspected; most men do not want brainy women. Stewardesses have turned out to be that occupation blessed most often with marriage. The key elements appear to be uniforms and travel."

I wouldn't rank The Sweetheart Season quite as highly as Sarah Canary. At times the usually wonderfully controlled ironic voice turns a little shrill. At times she drives home a point unnecessarily: it is sufficient to show us the evidence, or to leave an ironic statement alone for the reader to interpret. Also, I was completely unable to believe the resolution of one of the plot threads. However, the book as a whole is thoroughly enjoyable, and says a lot of worthwhile things about the place of women in our society, especially about how (and, I suppose, why) it changed in the years during and after World War II.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Forgotten SF Collection: Now Then!, by John Brunner

As I've mentioned many times before, I quite enjoy early John Brunner. So, for this "Forgotten Books" outing, I thought I'd resurrect what I wrote about a fairly early Brunner collection of novellas. On the whole, it must be said, these are minor Brunner.

(Cover by Hector Garrido)
Now Then! is a John Brunner collection from 1965. It includes three unrelated novellas: "Some Lapse of Time" (24,000 words, from Science Fantasy #57, February 1963), "Imprint of Chaos" (17,500 words, from Science Fantasy #42, August 1960), and "Thou Good and Faithful" (19,000 words in this version, originally published as by John Loxsmith in Astounding, March 1953 -- the original version was a bit shorter at about 17,000 words).

"Some Lapse of Time" is a dour anti-Nuclear War story. A doctor discovers a dying tramp. The tramp turns out to have an unusual deficiency disease, and to be unidentifiable, and to speak an unknown language that might be related to English. The doctor begins to have terrible dreams as well. It turns out that the tramp has been sent back in time from a post-Holocaust world -- but will anyone believe this?

"Imprint of Chaos" is the first to be published of the "Traveler in Black" stories. I haven't read these stories, which appear to be rather popular. [I read them later.] This story involves the Traveler, who has many names, but one nature, traveling around his world giving people what they want. In this fashion he resists chaos. This story is somewhat episodic, but the bulk of it concerns an man who wanders into the Traveler's world from our world, and who is treated by the inhabitants of a certain city as a god (you see, they hadn't any gods, and they had decided they wanted one ...). I've got to say I found this pretty minor stuff -- I hope the other Traveler stories are better. [They are.]

"Thou Good and Faithful" was Brunner's first story for a major magazine, and for some reason he published it as by "John Loxsmith". Within a year it had been anthologized as by "K. Houston Brunner", the form of his name Brunner used most often in those days. For this collection, Brunner (as was his wont) revised the story, expanding it slightly from 17,000 to 19,000 words. It is a typical Brunner revision -- no change in plot, no added scenes, just a general reworking of the prose. The story concerns an exploring ship in a crowded galaxy that comes to a potentially perfect world. Beautiful climate, and no intelligent natives. But some robots are discovered -- who made them? Over time, the mystery is solved (well, not so much solved as the robots eventually just tell them what's up). The story is overlong -- it probably should have been about 10,000 words. It does have a fairly interesting theme concerning the ultimate destiny of intelligence.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Kenneth Schneyer

Yesterday was Ken Schneyer's birthday. I felt like Ken deserved a birthday review, but I confess my Locus archive missed a couple of worthwhile stories, so I added a couple of new capsule reviews.

Locus, June 2010

And Kenneth Schneyer, in “Liza’s Home” (Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Winter 2010), coils time paradoxes nicely in a story of a woman racked by guilt who invents a time machine.

Locus, August 2012

At Beneath Ceaseless Skies for May 31 I enjoyed Kenneth Schneyer's “Serkers and Sleep”. Serkers are victims of the bite of serks, which leads to paranoia and madness, and superhuman strength, such that serkers are likely to kill many of those closest to them. The only recourse is to kill them early, before the madness overtakes them. This notion is briefly sketched, and the future course of the story is clear when we meet our protagonist, an adolescent with a female friend who loves to swim in the lake, where the serks live … The resolution turns movingly on a local legend, and a magical book.

Clockword Phoenix 4, 2013

Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer" is an interesting story told via the notes to an exhibition of the title painter's work. It's set in the future -- Latimer is said to have lived from 1963-2023. The paintings and notes tell the story of much of Latimer's life -- her time in college, her up and down relationship with her lover and later wife, her fraught relationship with her parents -- as well as referencing a few dark incidents from the wider world: an industrial fire, a notorious case of child abuse. The notes try to tease out all kinds of symbolism as the reader realizes that what is being described are ghosts (and hints about the painter's personal life.) [This story made the Nebula shortlist.]

Lightspeed, November 2015

"The Plausibility of Dragons", by Kenneth Schneyer, follows the Moorish scholar Malik and the woman warrior Fara as travel through medieval Europe in search of the dragon they think killed Fara's sister. Malik isn't sure he believes in dragons, but he finds it even stranger that as they get closer to rumors of dragons they also find people who think he's a demon because of his dark skin, and that Fara is a witch, because no woman would wield a sword. The story turns intriguingly into a meditation on the nature of reality and the importance of belief in each other.

Lightspeed, July 2016

Kenneth Schneyer has a distinct interest in the stories we tell, as evidenced by his previous Lightspeed story, "The Plausibility of Dragons". "Some Pebbles in the Palm" is about the many lives of a fairly ordinary person, suggesting that he (or his choices) really didn't affect the world much. Then suggesting that maybe nobody's life affects the world much. Then reminding us that this is a story, leading to a neat stinger of an ending.

Locus, January 2018

I also liked Kenneth Schneyer’s “Keepsakes” (Analog, 11-12/17). The title refers to personality recordings, that their owners can call up and converse with, to help them remember their past. One question is – does this interaction change the keepsakes? Another question: what if a keepsake remembers something the later person doesn’t? And what if that memory hints at a crime? The protagonists are Doru and Afzal, who were lovers long ago, before Doru broke things off. He’s an expert on the Keepsake technology, and Afzal is a lawyer, and Afzal’s latest case involves a young woman whose Keepsake suggests her father may have killed her mother. There is a legal story here – can Keepsakes be witnesses? – but also an involving personal story, about Doru and Afzal and their history – and their Keepsakes.