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, 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 any missiles, etc., launched by one side to its own territory (perhaps explicitly to the bigwigs' 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 of 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


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 ( Publishing)
The Menace from Farside, by Ian McDonald ( Publishing)
“The Savannah Problem”, by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog, January-February)
Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan ( Publishing)
“Glass Cannon”, by Yoon Ha Lee (Hexarchate Stories)
Alice Payne Arrives, Kate Heartfield ( 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.


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:
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 ( (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 ( ), 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.