Monday, June 22, 2020

Very Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Kris Neville

Here's a very belated birthday review for Kris Neville, born May 9, 1925. I wanted to write about him, but I had only reviewed three or four of his stories, so I dug up a few more and read them ...

Kris Neville (1925-1980) had one of the interesting disappointing careers in the field. He was a native of Carthage, MO, home of Belle Starr and the great baseball pitcher Carl Hubbell and the far from great (indeed criminal) Missouri Attorney General William Webster, but NOT related to "North Carthage", the fictional town where Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl is set. (Carthage is near Joplin, entirely across the state from the Mississippi, on which North Carthage is said to sit.)) Thus Neville is the second Missourian in a row I've covered. He lived most of his adult life in California, and began publishing short fiction in 1949, and quickly made an impact, most notably with "Bettyann" (1951), but also "Hunt the Hunter" (1951) and "The Toy" (1952) among others. He also published perhaps a half-dozen novels, the last of which, Run, the Spearmaker, has only been published in Japan, except for an excerpt in the Riverside Quarterly. (It was co-written with his wife Lil, as were other late stories.) The novels were mostly expansions or fixups of earlier stories, and made little impact.

There is little question that he could have had a significant career. Why didn't he? Barry Malzberg, who collaborated with him on two stories and carried on an extensive correspondence, says that this was partly due to frustrated ambition -- the field, perhaps most of all its editors, were not ready to publish work of the ambition he desired. Another reason could be that he had a very good job, a technical writer and an expert on epoxies, which he seems to have liked and in which he was highly respected. Sometimes we readers forget that much as we want to see promising writers keep at it, there are other, equally rewarding, careers, and it's not our call what a given person chooses to do with their life. (I think of P. J. Plauger sometimes in this context.)

Astounding, March 1951

"Casting Office", by "Henderson Starke" (Kris Neville) is set just where it says -- in a casting office. The Actors seem pretty upset with the latest play, and the Critics are hammering it. The Author is peeved. It doesn't take long to figure out what's really going on, and what the "play" really is. Campbell calls it a fantasy, kind of by way of apology to Astounding's readers. There are some cute bits, but it goes on a bit long, and the central twist idea is so clear from the start that I think the story spends too much time acting like the reader can't guess.

Galaxy, June 1951

"Hunt the Hunter" is set on a distant planet where the leader of the human race (I assume) is hunting the mysterious "farn beast". He has roped in as guides two businessmen who have apparently previously visited the planet and bagged a farn beast. Meanwhile, an alien force is supposed to be nosing around the planet. The main viewpoint characters are the two businessmen, who make their resentment of the leader clear -- and who feel even worse when the leader decides to use one of them as bait. The bulk is the story is fairly familiar cynical comedy about bad and worse people variously bumbling around and mistreating each other ... and then the ending, quite literally, springs a little trap. Nice story, not a classic but solid work.

Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader, April 1953

"As Holy and Enchanted" is another story Kris Neville wrote under the name "Henderson Starke". A lonely, ordinary, man name Nick likes to walk in the part on Sundays, representing a more peaceful and natural break from his usual life in the city and work in a shop (perhaps a machine shop?) One Sunday at a fountain he happens across lovely girl name Mona, who seems enchanted by him, and they spend the day together, eating at restaurants and such. Nick falls for her immediately, and she seems intrigued by him -- but the reader, of course, knows right away what sort of creature (or spirit) she is, so the ending is never in doubt. A nicely done bittersweet piece.

(This story appears, of course, on my list of stories with titles taken from "Kubla Khan".)

Imagination, January 1954

(Cover by W. E. Terry)
The cover story (illustrated rather garishly by W. E. Terry) is "Peril of the Starmen", by Kris Neville. Earth is visited by aliens, and we (the readers) learn immediately that their plan is to blow up the planet. (Apparently they subscribe to the logic that I think I saw stated in Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski's The Killing Star -- once a species is capable of space flight they are a potential danger, so the smart thing to do is destroy them first.) Of course, the aliens' message is one of peace. One of the aliens, however, begins to have doubts. Set against the aliens' plans is conflict in the US government. Some are eager to welcome the aliens, but another faction, led by a Senator from Missouri who might be described in contemporary terms as "Trumpian", wants nothing to do with the aliens. In essence, they are right, but for totally wrong reasons. The premise is intriguing, but the story goes on a bit too long, mostly turning on an implausible love story between the doubtful alien and the Senator's sister.

9 Tales of Space and Time, 1954

(Cover by W. Thut)
"Overture" is the direct sequel to "Bettyann". (The two stories were combined, presumably with additional material, into a novel in 1970, and another story, "Bettyann's Children", written with Lil Neville, appeared in 1973.) (Obviously, spoilers for "Bettyann" follow.) The story opens with Bettyann, having left the ship in which her alien relatives were planning to take her away, using her shapechanging ability to fly back to her true home, in Southwest Missouri. She must now come to terms with her newly revealed alien abilities, and somehow explain to her parents why she suddenly left Smith College. She becomes obsessed with the idea of making a difference -- perhaps by using her powers to heal people, and she also begins to fall for the much older local doctor. Not much else really happens -- a couple of minor health crises, her young love, her relationship with her adoptive parents -- but the story is very nicely told, sweet, well-written.

Galaxy, October 1968

Kris Neville's "Thyre Planet" is a bit more serious, if not entirely so. The story has two foci, and I'm not sure they work together. On the one hand it's a fairly broad satire of the executive personality, almost Dilbertian in spots, as Mr. Bellflower, a very well-trained expert executive, is hired by Thyre planet to solve the reliability problem with their transport booths, which were left by the natives of Thyre, who have all disappeared. So Bellflower's strategies are shown, which proved to be more based on establishing a power base and keeping the money flowing than actually solving the problem. Thus, a solution to the problem is the worst thing that could happen -- despite the fact that thousands of people a year are lost in the transport booths. The other focus is of course the problem -- and its solution, which is fairly clever, if, I think easily guessable. I liked both aspects of the story, but they seem to sit a little uneasily together.

F&SF, December 1970

"The Reality Machine", by Kris Neville, is a brief, dark, satire that follows an advisor to the President as he tries to brief him on the progress of the title machine, which we eventually learn, really is altering reality. The story seems darkly prescient in presenting an advisor who despite some apparent competence defers entirely to his worthless President; and a President who is happy to deny reality. How did Neville know?

Universe 3, 1974

Kris Neville's "Survival Problems" is, somewhat like "The Reality Machine", a dark satire on American politics. It mainly follows a successful scientist at a Mortuary institute, an expert in preserving people after their death, who wins a lottery to get life extension (at the cost of slowing one's brain processes so they become very stupid.) But first he must deal with crises at his job ... and then it becomes necessary to preserve the President himself ... the story runs on long enough to make the mordant points it wants to make, without really developing a plot -- which is OK, I suppose, because Neville doesn what he wants in its space.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Robert Moore Williams

(Cover by Jeff Jones)
Robert Moore Williams was born in Farmington, MO, in 1907. He began publishing SF in 1934, made a mild splash with the 1938 story "Robots Return", and continued publishing fairly regularly into the 1970s. He was possibly best known for a number of Tarzan-like knockoffs, first the Jongor series from the pulps in the '40s and '50s, reprinted in 1970 or so when there was something of a Burroughs revival, and also the Zanthar series, from the late '60s. (These two series featured covers by perhaps the most significant Sword and Sorcery artists of that era -- Jeff Jones for Zanthar, and Frank Frazetta for Jongor.) His late short fiction (that is, that from the 1960s) was all for Frederik Pohl at If -- he was one of several writers from Pohl's youth that he lured back to publish short fiction for his magazines in the '60s.

I found his stories rather ordinary, but generally professionally done. Here are looks at a few stories of his I have read in some older SF magazines.

I have also reviewed a couple of his Ace Doubles here.

The Star Wasps

King of the Fourth Planet

Super Science Stories, May 1950

"The Soul Makers" by Robert Moore Williams is one of two stories dealing with Nuclear War. (If you ever see an SF magazine from the early 50s without a Nuclear War story, you can bet it's a fake.) In this case the Americans are fighting the East Bloc, with the help of newly invented robots. The robots are acting erratically however -- and it turns out they have realized that the fallout from the bombs has already doomed humanity, and they are planning for the future.

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1951

Robert Moore Williams' "The Void Beyond" posits that space travel is so painful that only young men -- no women, and no one over 30 -- can survive it. Eric Gaunt is a veteran captain, 28 or so, who is disgusted when a woman tries to come aboard, having bought her ticket legally with her ambiguous name, Frances Marion. So then the woman stows away ... and when they catch her she insists that the problem is in their head and if they just exhibit will power they'll be able to tolerate space, just like she will. The ending is a mild twist. Generally a pretty silly idea and execution, with a predictable romance tacked on.

Imaginative Tales, July 1957

As for Robert Moore Williams' "The Red Rash Deaths", it's about a policeman investigating a mysterious plague -- a terribly contagious red rash has caused dozens of hundreds of deaths. He tracks down a strange man who seems associated with the deaths ... and a deus ex machina (or ex futura) solves his predicament.

Super Science Stories, May 1958

Robert Moore Williams (name given as "Robert M. Williams" on the TOC, but the full name shown on the story page) contributes "I Want to Go Home" (3500 words), about a troubled boy who has spent his whole life obsessed with the idea that he is out of place in our world, and he wants to go home. He eventually infects the police psychiatrist assigned to his case with the same concern. A minor story, but Williams does come to an unexpected conclusion.

If, October 1965

"Short Trip to Nowhere", by Robert Moore Williams, is set in the distant future of 2010, where there are antigravity beds and sleep machines. One night the protagonist is a accosted by someone in his sleep -- and after wondering who could talk to him via the sleep machine, he realizes that his 3-year-old daughter also seems to talk to -- and play with -- someone while she sleeps. This soon leads to the creature in the sleep world luring the child into his "world" -- and when the Dad talks to the creature via his sleep machine he quickly realizes that this creature has no notion that his world isn't made for humans -- for example, there's no food there. Kind of a trivial piece, really.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Birthday Review: The Coming, by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman turns 77 today. He's an SFWA Grand Master, one of the truly fine writers of his generation. He's one of those writers who made a huge splash early in his career, with his second novel, first SF novel, The Forever War; and in some ways I sometimes think that's made people forget how consistently strong his novels have been throughout his career. I haven't seen a novel since Work Done For Hire in 2014 -- I hope we might have more coming. Here is a review based on a blog post I did of one of his solid late middle-period books.

The Coming, by Joe Haldeman
a review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman's newest book is The Coming. This is a shortish, nicely executed, book about the receipt of a signal from an alien ship. Haldeman explicitly credits James Gunn's fine novel about receiving messages from aliens, The Listeners, as an influence, but The Coming reminded me much more of a brilliant and underrated novel by John Kessel, Good News From Outer Space. Both books (The Coming and Kessel's novel) use the idea of aliens coming to Earth as a fulcrum for an exploration of U. S. society.

The Coming opens with an astronomer at the University of Florida, Aurora Bell, recognizing an anomalous signal from a gamma ray telescope. It turns out to be a short message saying, in English, "We're Coming". And she is able to confirm that it comes from a source about a tenth of a light year from Earth, blue-shifted so that it must be traveling at 99 percent of the speed of light.

The novel is neatly structured so that the point of view smoothly shifts from scene to scene, such that each new scene begins from the POV of a character encountered just previously.  This gives the whole book a certain fluidity and a certain sense of movement, and it also alows the author to gracefully explore events through the eyes of a wide variety of characters.  What we see is a portrait of\ the city of Gainesville, Florida, in the 2054. The characters include Dr. Bell and her husband, a composer and also a professor; several colleagues of Dr. Bell, significantly including her assistant, a mysterious immigrant from Cuba named Pepe Parker; a restaurant owner in the University neighbourhood; a Mafia bag man; a policeman; a couple of reporters; a homeless lady; a university student making extra money by "acting" in "virtual reality" pornographic episodes; and more. Haldeman uses this tapestry of viewpoints to portray the reaction of the wider populace to the Coming of the aliens, but more importantly, he uses it to portray the social and political and technological landscape of this particular future.

Haldeman's portrayal is interesting. The future tech includes highly computerized homes and holographic conference calls and the above-mentioned virtual porn. Environmentally, the world is facing advanced global warming, with much flooding, unusual winters and summers, sunblock essential at all times lest you get skin cancer, etc. The political view of the US is a bit disappointing: his view is a cynical redaction of contemporary politics, with all but unchanged Democratic and Republican parties, and an image-besotten Republican idiot as President.  I'd have rather seen a more altered political landscape. There are snippets of world politics that present some interesting changes: an important subplot concerns a looming war between France and Germany. The major social change in the U. S. that affects the book is that much stricter laws about sexual activity have been implemented: homosexuality is completely criminalized, while even some consensual married activities are apparently against the law (though not often enforced).  I confess I find these last changes implausible and counter to real social trends in the U. S. today: perhaps I am simply an optimist. His overall future is somewhat depressing but not without hope, and it is quite interesting. The characters are well-portrayed and involving.

The plot is also interesting. It turns on political manoeuvring about the proper response to the arrival of the aliens, as well as the calamitous revealing of a dark secret in the Bells' past.  There is a certain amount of action and intrigue, resolved nicely enough. And Haldeman's climax, involving the promised arrival of the aliens, is well-handled, and the reader isn't cheated.  Overall the book feels just a bit slight, but it's a fine effort, and a good solid read.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A List of 100 (+) Books I Haven't Read

One Hundred Books on my TBR Pile

I put this list together after having previous rather carelessly posted a shabbily curated list of 100 (actually 99) books that, it was claimed, was put together by the BBC and that of which, supposedly (no proof offered) the average person had only read 6. The list also included a couple of strange duplicates, too many books by certain writers, and a couple of (in my opinion) egregiously bad books. On the other hand, most of the books on the list were actually pretty good, so it was fun discussing it.

But then, I thought -- this might be more interesting. This list is one I made essentially from looking at my (literal and also figurative) To Be Read pile -- books I've known about for years, own in most cases, and think are awfully interesting. Some are fairly recent books (many SF) that I've been meaning to get to, others are older books, mostly in the category of "classics". Some people have noted that some of them seem like the lesser-known, and arguably "lesser", books of great writers. There are two reasons for this: some are books by writers whom I've already tried, but want to read further. So, I've read Henry Esmond and Vanity Fair, and I want to read more Thackeray, hence Pendennis. I've read Middlemarch, and want to read more Eliot, hence Daniel Deronda. I've read lots and lots of Byatt, but never got to Babel Tower, hence it's there. The other reasons is that I don't necessarily agree that all these books are "lesser" ... speaking as one who hasn't read them. Is Anna Karenina "lesser" than War and Peace? I don't know, but it seems pretty major to me. Is The Blind Assassin lesser than The Handmaid's Tale? I don't think so (can't say I know) ... it's just the book that hasn't become a famous miniseries.

Anyway -- what's not on this list. First -- nothing I have already read. So don't ask me why there's no Jane Austen -- I've read her complete works. Same with Kingsley Amis. Anthony Powell. Robertson Davies. Penelope Fitzgerald. Flann O'Brien. Kipling. Flannery O'Connor. W. M. Spackman. Karen Joy Fowler. etc. etc. etc.

It is my list, and I read only English (a failure of mine, not any sort of virtue), so it's very English-language-centric, and beyond that rather Western-centric, with some attempts to broaden that. Parts of it are pretty idiosyncratically me -- but what would be the fun if that wasn't true? And this is a shame-free zone, I hope -- if you haven't read these, great! Neither have I! That just means we have more to look forward to!

I have also expanded my additional list to include some excellent suggestions offered after my original Facebook post. Those appear at the end.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits

Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night

Eleanor Arnason, Daughter of the Bear King

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Margeret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Honore de Balzac, Pere Goriot

John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A. S. Byatt, Babel Tower

Willa Cather, My Antonia

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Anton Chekhov, Selected Stories

Wu Cheng’En, Journey to the West

C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Manservant and Maidservant

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

John Crowley, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Neveryon

Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Fyodor Dostoyevksy, The Brothers Karamazov

Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

E. M. Forster, A Room With a View

George Macdonald Fraser, Mr. American

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Henry Green, Doting

Elizabeth Hand, Curious Toys

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Tsao Hsueh-Chin, Dream of the Red Chamber

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

James Joyce, Ulysses

Franz Kafka, The Trial

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Margaret Laurence, Rachel, Rachel

Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

Eleanor Lerman, Radiomen

Doris Lessing, Canopus in Argus

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

George MacDonald, Lilith

Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights and Days

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Toni Morrison, Sula

Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another World

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox

Edgar Pangborn, Wilderness of Spring

Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Alexander Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter

Mary Renault, The King Must Die

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Matt Ruff, The Mirage

Karen Russell, Swamplandia

Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

William Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen

Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Francis Spofford, Golden Hill

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel

William Makepeace Thackeray, Pendennis

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

John Updike, The Centaur

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden

Jo Walton, Lent

Janwilliam van der Wetering, The Corpse on the Dike

Edith Wharton, Summer

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

John Williams, Stoner

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Xenophon, Anabasis

Margaret Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We

Stefan Zweig, The Royal Game

New Additions:

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Lawrence Durrell, Constance; or, Solitary Practices

Jaraslav Hasek, The Good Solider Svejk

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Leena Krohn, Collected Fiction

Chen Quifan, Waste Tide

Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Voltaire, Candide

Edward Whittemore, Quin's Shanghai Circus