Saturday, August 29, 2020

Birthday Review: Three Short Novels by Jack Vance

Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of Jack Vance's birth. Earlier today I posted a collection of reviews of some of his less well-known short fiction, and I can't resist also posting this look at the Ace Double editions -- in several permutations -- of  The Dragon Masters, The Last Castle, and The Five Gold Bands.

(The cover artists, by the way, are Ed Emshwiller for the 1963 Dragon Masters, Ed Valigursky for the 1963 Five Gold Bands, Josh Kirby for the 1972 and 1973 editions of The Dragon Masters, Lloyd for the 1972 Five Gold Bands, and Rucker for the 1973 Last Castle. Also Jack Gaughan for both sides of the 1967 pairing of The Last Castle with Tony Wayman's World of the Sleeper.)

Ace Double Reviews, 3: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Five Gold Bands, by Jack Vance (#F-185, 1963, $0.40, reissued in 1972 as #16640, $0.95)

by Rich Horton

Jack Vance published quite a few stories as parts of Ace Doubles. Unusually, almost every Ace Double he appeared in featured one of his stories backed with another of his stories, as in this case. A total of 13 Ace Double halves were by Vance, in seven different books (not counting reissues of The Dragon Masters/The Five Gold Bands and Son of the Tree/The Houses of Iszm). The only author to be featured in an Ace Double with Vance was Tony Russell Wayman, whose World of the Sleeper was backed with The Last Castle in 1967. However, you don't need to sully your Vance collection with Wayman's work -- The Last Castle was later reissued in another Ace Double backed with The Dragon Masters. (Thus, The Dragon Masters was issued three times as an Ace Double, twice with The Five Gold Bands and once with The Last Castle.) Accounting for duplications, a total of 11 different Vance "books" were halves of Ace Doubles (including two story collections and a fixup).

The first Ace Double of The Dragon Masters backed with The Five Gold Bands was published in 1963. That year "The Dragon Masters", which had appeared in the August 1962 Galaxy, won the Hugo for Best Short Fiction. (The other contenders were stories by Leiber, Sturgeon, Swann, and, surprisingly enough, Gary Jennings.) The Dragon Masters, in the Ace edition (and I have no reason to believe this differs from the Galaxy publication), is about 34,000 words long. The Five Gold Bands is rather longer at some 44,000 words. It first appeared in the November 1950 Startling Stories. It was also published in 1953 in a paperback from an outfit called Toby Press, of which I had never heard, under the title The Space Pirate. This was his second book. The Toby Press edition is available from Abebooks for prices ranging from $15 to $100, with most prices in the $45 to $75 area. (This isn't nearly as expensive as Vance's first hardcover, also from 1953, the Winston Press edition of Vandals of the Void, which will run you at least $140 for a copy with dust jacket (as little as merely $75 w/o dj), and as much as $375.)

The Five Gold Bands is basically a pure potboiler, with very little classical Vancian charm. It's still quite entertaining, though, and it does have some nice Vance aliens (or modified humans). The hero is Earth-born thief Paddy Blackthorn, who tries to steal some space drives. The secret of the drives is known only to the five Sons of Langtry, each a much-altered human from a different planet, and space drives are doled out very sparingly, especially to the detested Earthmen. Sentenced to death, Paddy manages to escape and kill the Sons, and to steal the title objects which include, treasure hunt fashion, clues to the location of the space drive plans. Paddy becomes the object of an interstellar manhunt, while, with the help of a beautiful Earth agent who gets to him first, he tracks down the space drive plans based on the clues in the bands. It's good fun, if totally unbelievable, and riddled with plot and world-building holes.

While in prose style this book is uncharacteristic of classic Vance, the cultural setup at least hints at later Vance. More interestingly, in this context, the much-altered human types -- different enough to be aliens -- strongly foreshadow the altered humans in The Dragon Masters.

The Dragon Masters is very good, though I'd rank it below Vance's very best stuff. As I have said, it shares with The Five Gold Bands (otherwise a thoroughly different story) the theme of radical modification of humans. In this case, in the very far future, humans have almost been eradicated. Those that remain are either slaves of aliens, modified for special uses; except on one planet, where a few remain free. The aliens have visited this planet on occasion, but then leave for long times. In the past, the free humans have captured some aliens and radically modified them for their own uses.

The hero, Joaz Banbeck, a very Vancian hero, dour, misogynistic, intelligent but resigned, has determined that the aliens are due to return, and he tries to organize a defense while dealing with a foolish enemy in the next valley, and also with the reclusive humans who live underneath the ground. The book is quite dour, with a rather bitter and uncompromising conclusion. The science is typically silly (though I can think of ways to paper over the worst bits), but the description is good, and the action is sound. The story moves well and fascinates And the prose is enjoyable as ever with Vance, if perhaps not tuned to the highest pitch of Vancean elegance.


Below is what I wrote about the very late Ace Double pairing The Dragon Masters with The Last Castle, much of it originally for SF Site:

Ace Double Reviews, 31: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Last Castle, by Jack Vance (#16641, 1973, $0.95)

This is to some extent a cheat as an "Ace Double Review". I don't actually have a copy of this Ace Double. But I have just reviewed, at SF Site, the iBooks reissue of these two short novels, called simply The Dragon Masters, based on the Vance Integral Edition texts. It seemed to me that this would be a good opportunity to highlight Ace's practice, in the latter years of Ace Doubles, of repackaging previous Ace Double halves by the same author, originally paired with other books, as new Ace Doubles -- and as such as sort of "omnibus" editions. In addition to this Vance book, Ace did similar repackagings of pairs of stories by Mack Reynolds, Samuel R. Delany, E. C. Tubb, Philip K. Dick, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and others. The combination of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle may well be the shortest ever Ace Double -- however, it's also one of the very best.)

Jack Vance is one of the greatest SF writers of all time, an SFWA Grand Master, an inimitable prose stylist, as individual a writer as anyone. His career began in the late 40s, and continues to this day, with a new novel, Lurulu, rumoured to be in the publication pipeline. [Lurulu did appear, in 2004, and it proved to be his final novel.]

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are set in the far future, and both feature humans enslaving genetically modified aliens. In both stories the plot turns on a war between the humans and the aliens. Both stories are quite cynical, and our admiration for the heroes is tempered by our natural antipathy for some of their attitudes and actions.

[The Dragon Masters review is the same as above, so elided here.]

In The Last Castle, a group of decadent humans have returned to a long-abandoned Earth and set up an effete society in several "castles". The labour is performed by various genetically conditioned alien races. For example, the Phanes are beautiful elfin creatures sometimes used as sexual playthings. The Peasants perform menial chores. And the Meks are a hivelike species used to maintain the technological underpinnings. The Meks have finally revolted, and using their control of the technology, they have destroyed all the castles, until only the strongest, Castle Hagedorn, remains. The story turns on the ineffectual attempts of the humans to resist -- most are too concerned with their "honour", unable to sully themselves by any hint of labour, to put up a real resistance. Others refuse to kill aliens for what seems an arguably just rebellion anyway. Only a few see that the only hope for humanity is to regain a semblance of a work ethic and to cast off the decadent ways of the aristocratic society. The prose and characterization here is more effective than in The Dragon Masters, but I thought the plot resolution less convincing.

Bonus picture: the cover of the 1967 Ace Double pairing of The Last Castle with World of the Sleeper, both covers by Jack Gaughan. 

Birthday Review: Stories of Jack Vance

John Holbrook Vance would have turned 104 yesterday (August 28, 2020). (He died back in 2013.) He is one of the most enjoyable SF/Fantasy writers ever, and I noticed that I had never done a story review compilation for him before. So here we go -- a selection of some things I wrote about a number of his stories that I found in old magazines, mostly. Many of these stories are a bit on the obscure side -- not always his best work. But still well worth reading!

(I also realized I have at least one Ace Double review of his books I haven't posted about here -- maybe later!)

Worlds Beyond, February 1951

"Brain of the Galaxy" is better known as "The New Prime". It is one of the most highly-regarded of early Vance stories. I like it, but I think it tends to be a bit overpraised. It's about a sort of virtual reality contest to select the new "Galactic Prime" -- each candidate is exposed to a variety of harsh tests. The ending is a moral twist. 

Planet Stories, July 1951

One of the real unexpected bonuses of this venture was to find an obscure early Jack Vance story, "Temple of Han".  As far as I know, this has not been anthologized before.  It has a hint of Vance's ironic voice, but really isn't close to being in his mature style.  An Earthman on a colony planet steals a jewel from the title temple.  A god-like being from another dimension takes offense and moves the entire planet.  The Earthman is compelled to return the jewel, but instead of accepting the death penalty, he engages the "god" in a battle with the help of the god's rival gods.

Startling Stories, September 1951

And finally Vance's "The Masquerade on Dicantropus", about a couple whose marriage is falling apart due to the frustrations of living on a new planet, along with a mystery about a strange pyramid built by the native Dicantrops, and the potential of a motherlode of diamonds. I thought it pretty inconsequential Vance.

Space Stories, December 1952

Each issue of this pulp featured a long novella or short novel. The long story in the December 1952 issue was by Jack Vance, "Planet of the Damned", at 47,000 words definitely novel length. This is the novel that led me to find Space Stories. I'm a Jack Vance enthusiast, and I was looking for a copy of his early novel Slaves of the Klau, and this was its original publication. (Vance's actual preferred title was Gold and Iron.)

As the story opens, Earth is occupied, very benignly, by a few members of the Lekthwan race, a very humanoid (to the point of being typically beautiful, if unusually colored) people who have given humans the benefits of some of their advanced tech. But Roy Barch, an employee of one of the Lekthwan administrators, is suspicious -- he believes the Lekthwan influence, even if well-intended, will stunt Earth's development. He is also somewhat hopelessly under the spell of the beautiful daughter of his employer. One night he takes her on a date -- resulting only in frustration as she makes it clear that she regards him as a hopeless primitive -- but on returning to the Lekthwan estate he finds all the residents murdered. He and Komeitk Lelianr, the Lekthwan girl, are rounded up by the attackers, the brutish Klau. It seems the Klau are evil slavers, trying to take over the galaxy, and given only token resistance by the virtuous but ineffective races such as the Lekthwan.

The course of the rest of the story is predictable -- upon arriving at the slave planet, Roy finds a way to escape with "Ellen" (as he calls Komeitk Lelianr), despite her ennui and her conviction that resistance is hopeless. After hooking up with a grubby bunch of escapees, Roy eventually hatches a desperate plan to make a spaceship from scratch and head back to Earth. Vance elaborates this rather routine plot pretty well -- Roy's efforts are far from fully successful according to his plans -- though they do end up having the desired effect; and Komeitk Lelianr doesn't immediately jump into Roy's arms. It's not a great novel at all, but it's enjoyable in the terms of early 50s pulp SF, and it prefigures later Vance pretty well, particularly in the character of Komeitk Lelianr, who is the standard late Vance aloof, superior, woman. The only departure is that at the end she comes back to Roy (admittedly somewhat hesitantly), while in later Vance she might have been more likely to meet a bitter end.

Vortex, Volume 1, Number 1 (1953)

Vortex was a truly awful magazine that lasted only two issues. It might be best known for featuring the first professional sale by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It was doubtless a salvage market for more experienced writers, and I feel that must have been the case with "The Mitr", by Jack Vance. A young woman is sort of the pet/food animal for a race of huge beetles. Then a spaceship comes with what seem to be men inside. An oddly pointless story, I thought. Not even close to good Vance.

Cosmos, November 1953

Vance's "Shape-Up" is a rare story, only reprinted in his 1986 Underwood-Miller collection The Augmented Agent, which reprinted 8 previously uncollected stories. (Mostly uncollected for good reason, I will say.) It's routine Vance of the period, competent pulp work with a bit of a twist -- not bad of its type but not memorable. A man is hired for a job with a notorious leader of adventurers. After a couple of tests, he finds himself one of five remaining candidates for four positions -- and it transpires that the extra man is a murderer, and that the whole point of this exercise was to flush out the murderer. Unconvincing reasons are given as to why this would work, and pointing to the killer -- but then there is a twist.

Cosmos, March 1954

Jack Vance's "When the Five Moons Rise" is set on a planet with five moons. Perrin is a lighthouse operator. His veteran partner, Seguilo, warns him not to believe anything he sees when the five moons appear together. Then, after they all rise, Seguilo disappears -- only to strangely reappear then disappear again. Perrin encounters more strange things -- a working radio after his has broken, then a beautiful woman just as he has been, all lonely, dreaming about. He soon gathers that whatever he imagines might come to be -- and then he can't stop thinking "What if I imagine something awful" ... Nicely done light horror, not terribly Vancean but solid work.

Galaxy, August 1961

I'm a stone Jack Vance fan, and I've read "The Moon Moth" several times with pleasure. But I think it diminishes a bit on repeated rereading. Basically, the hero's achievement begins to seem trivial and lucky. And a bit implausible. That said, the evocation of local color is still lovely. (As most know, the story is set on a world where everyone wears masks, and where the only currency of importance is "strakh" (reputation). The language has a musical component conveyed partly by singing and partly by playing instruments, and the right choice of instrument is vital. A new envoy is charged with intercepting a dangerous assassin who has chosen to hide on this world, and his clumsiness with the language and etiquette gives him much trouble.)

F&SF, February 1966

"The Mountains of Magnatz" is a Cugel the Clever story. Quite enjoyable, with the usual Vance touches (a bit of misogynism, delightfully mannered prose, a slightly exotic society) plus typical Cugelisms -- basically, his decided non-cleverness, and his rather vile nature. The story concerns Cugel coming to a village and ending up imprisoned in a tower, as the replacement "Watcher" ... he escapes, of course, and takes the girl he was promised in payment with him (without her permission, of course.) 

Galactic Effectuator

Years ago I read Jack Vance's "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" when it was first published in the Silverberg/Elwood anthology Epoch. That anthology was roundly criticized (one review said that it was best described by removing the "p" and the "o" from its title), but though it did contain some dreck, it also had some decent stuff (one suspects, perhaps unfairly, most of the latter bought by Silverberg.) The Vance story, really a full-length novel (43000 words), is in the middle range.  Solid but not special entertainment. A year later, Vance published a novella, "Freitzke's Turn", in another Silverberg anthology, Triax. Eventually the two stories were assembled as a book, marketed as a novel, Galactic Effectuator. The title character is Miro Hetzel, an investigator operating in the Gaean Reach in Vance's baroque Galactic future. The longer story ("The Dogtown Tourist Agency") is fairly routine, worth the time but not memorable, about a planet full of a warlike race which is administered by humans and two other alien races in order to keep the warlike indigenes in control, and a possible gun-running plot. The shorter story, "Freitzke's Turn", is really fairly minor Vance as well, but I found it quite charming in a mordant way. Hetzel is called in to investigate a former classmate of his, a surgeon who has been known for dishonesty and brilliance his whole life, and who is taking rather unusual revenge against a rival in love, and perhaps against some other former enemies. The title has little to do with the story, but it is a delight nonetheless. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Birthday Review: Three Capsules on Martin Amis Books

For Martin Amis' 71st birthday here are three very short reviews -- just capsules, really -- of three of his books: a novel, a memoir, and a story collection. 

Three Short Reviews of Martin Amis Books

by Rich Horton

The Rachel Papers

The Rachel Papers was Martin Amis's first novel, from 1973, written when he was about the age of the book's protagonist -- that is, on the cusp of 20. Charles Highway tells his story on the night before his 20th birthday, which in his view makes him an adult. He is cramming for entry to Oxford. He's the son of a successful man who he mostly loathes. He is living in London, with his elder sister and her rather disgusting husband.

The story tells in flashbacks the history of his relationship with a girl named Rachel. He meets her at a party he crashes with a friend -- it turns out she's the one throwing the party, though he has no idea of that. He is smitten, and despite the presence of an American boyfriend, he tries to get her to go out with him, and haltingly succeeds. And so the tale goes ... several months of a fairly sweet (in context) relationship between two not terribly well-matched people. Charles is ferociously cynical (if much of that is a pose) while Rachel is sweet enough, pretty, but perhaps a bit dim. They have terrific sex but that seems their main connection. There are amusing scenes with both families, and plenty of further comedic details of Charles's life, in particular his dealings with the bumbling tutors at his cramming school. He also deals with the infidelities of his father and his brother-in-law. And finally of course with his concerns about where his relationship with Rachel is headed.

It's a very fine first novel. Very funny, in what was soon enough known as Amis's standard cynical manner. 


I've mentioned before that I really like literary memoirs: that is, the memoirs of writers. I think the main reason is that they tend to be better written.  This is Amis' "I'm turning 50, and my Dad just died" book.  Actually, he structures the book mostly around two wrenching experiences: his father (Kingsley Amis) dying, and the discovery of his cousin's (Lucy Partington's) dead body among those murdered by the notorious serial killer  Frederick West.  Two other threads also feature: his relationship with his idol and friend Saul Bellow, and his discovery of a daughter he never knew he had (the result of a past affair). It's a fine book, effective and moving.  The best parts for me were his depiction of his relationship with Kingsley: very affectionate, very honest, very moving.  To be sure Kingsley Amis is a favorite writer of mine, so that might colour my view.

Heavy Water

Martin Amis' Heavy Water is a collection of short stories spanning his whole career.  I think on the whole he is a natural novelist, and that at shorter lengths his gifts are not shown to their fullest. That said, there are some pretty decent stories here.  My favorite is probably "The Coincidence of the Arts", about an English aristocrat and portrait painter living in New York, and his affair with a silent Black amazon.  The theme here is race, mostly, and I thought it was addressed subtly and intelligently (to be sure, I say that as a white man). "Career Move" is a cute piece asking what if poetry was treated like blockbuster movies (and pulpish screenplays like poetry)? "Straight Fiction" is another role reversal story: about a world where gays are the dominant majority, and heterosexuals the oppressed minority. "Let Me Count the Times" is soft porn about a guy who obsesses about counting his sexual acts with his wife, then "discovers" masturbation. A lot of Amis showing off his bravura verbal tricks in this one. "The Janitor on Mars" is a dark story about a robot from Mars who contacts Earth and invites a party to come visit. The rest of the stories include some decent ones, and some which I frankly don't get the point of.  (I'll note that three of the stories are forthrightly SF: "Career Move", "Straight Fiction", and "The Janitor on Mars".)

TOC, Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020 Edition

This has been a long time coming, due primarily to the pandemic. But here at last is the lineup of stories for The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020, due from Prime Books in December. Note that the stories are listed in alphabetical order by place of publication -- the final TOC order will be different. Thanks very much to all the authors included -- your stories -- even the darkest ones -- are a light to me.

"The Savannah Problem" by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog, 1-2/19)

"Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing" by Andy Dudak (Analog, 1-2/19)

"Empty Box" by Allison Mulvihill (Analog, 11-12/19)

"At the Fall" by Alec Nevala-Lee (Analog, 5-6/19)

"Anosognosia" by John Crowley (And Go Like This)

"Tourists" by Rammel Chan (Asimov’s, 3-4/19)

"At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street" by Michael Libling (Asimov’s, 9-10/19)

"The Ocean Between the Leaves" by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s, 7-8/19)

"Cloud" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s, 11-12/19)

"Cloud-Born" by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, 11/19)

"Give the Family My Love" by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld, 02/2019)

"Tick Tock" by Xia Jia (Clarkesworld, 5/19)

"The Visible Frontier" by Grace Seybold (Clarkesworld, 07/2019)

"Secret Stories of Doors" by Sofia Rhei (Everything is Made of Letters)

"miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax" by Tina Connolly (F&SF, 3-4/19)

"Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad" by Cassandra Khaw (F&SF, 7-8/19)

"Shucked" by Sam J. Miller (F&SF, 11-12/19)

"How to Kiss a Hojacki" by Debbie Urbanski (F&SF, 5-6/19)

"Green Glass: A Love Story" by E. Lily Yu (If This Goes On, edited by Cat Rambo)

"Fix That House!" by John Kessel (Interzone, 9-10/19)

"Ink, and Breath, and Spring" by Frances Rowat (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, 11/19)

"The Death of Fire Station 10" by Ray Nayler (Lightspeed, 10/19)

"The Archronology of Love" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, 04/19)

"The Fine Print" by Chinelo Onwualu, (New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl)

"The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang (New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl)

"Bark, Blood, and Sacrifice" by Alexandra Seidel (Not One of Us, 10/19)

"Mnemosyne" by Catherine MacLeod (On Spec, 04/19)

"A Country Called Winter" by Theodora Goss (Snow White Learns Witchcraft)

"And Now His Lordship is Laughing" by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 09/20/19)

"The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear" by Kelly Link (Tin House, Summer 2019)

"The Hundredth House Had No Walls" by Laurie Penny (, 09/11/19)

"Knowledgeable Creatures" by Christopher Rowe (, 03/06/19)

"Vis Delendi" by Marie Brennan (Uncanny, 3-4/19)

"The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor" by Maurice Broaddus (Uncanny, 7-8/19)

"A Catalog of Storms" by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, 1-2/19)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Old Bestseller Review: Old New York, by Edith Wharton


Old New York, by Edith Wharton

a review by Rich Horton

A little while ago I posted a list of 100 books I haven't read, implying of course that they ought to be next in line. The list included My Antonia, by Willa Cather, so naturally my last post was about Willa Cather's novel ... Death Comes for the Archbishop. Also on the list was Edith Wharton's short novel Summer. So what was the next fiction I read by Cather's great contemporary? Her collection of short novels, Old New York. (Which does not include Summer!)

Oh well. I don't care much in which order I read these great writers! And I was very happy to read Old New York (and also Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, of which more in a post to come.) My impression is that these stories were written partly in response to the reception of The Age of Innocence, a story set in New York in the 1870s, for which Wharton (according to A Backward Glance) had no expecations of commercial success. Instead, the book was a bestseller, and so it must have seemed, to Wharton or to her editors, that more stories about "Old New York" might have a market. 

The book appeared from D. W. Appleton (by then her regular publishers) in 1924. Somewhat to my surprise, none of the four stories had a magazine publication. (Wharton published often in the magazines of that time, and was paid very well.) The four novellas are: "False Dawn" (perhaps 19,000 words), "The Old Maid" (perhaps 29,000 words), "The Spark" (about 15,000 words), and "New Year's Day" (perhaps 23,000 words.) The unifying conceit is that they all concern upper class New York society, in four consecutive decades, the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. (You may note that this time period overlaps with the main time period of The Age of Innocence, and indeed a couple of characters from that novel show up in one or two of these stories.) The book was very nicely published as four slim volumes, each with its own dust jacket, and a slipcover for the set.

So -- to consider each story. "False Dawn" is about Lewis Raycie, the son of Halston Raycie, one of the leading citizens of 1840s New York. Lewis is about ready to take his "Grand Tour" of Europe. His father -- purely a philistine, and a tyrant too -- is happy to pay for Lewis' trip, but he does ask one thing of his son -- to bring back some paintings by the Grand Masters -- perhaps a Raphael will be beyond their means, but surely someone of the next tier. Halston also has plans (of course) for Lewis' marriage, but Lewis is in love with Treeshy (short for Beatrice) Kent, a girl of good enough breeding but little money and little looks. Curiously, the story doesn't really turn on Lewis' love affair, but on the artworks. Lewis, on his travels, runs into a passionate young Englishman, who preaches to him about art. (This is, of course, John Ruskin.) Lewis becomes a convert, and instead of buying the then fashionable near-Grand Masters that his father wants, he acquires the Italian primitives (as then called) that Ruskin (and others like Dante Gabriel Rossetti) champion. And when he gets home, his father is furious, and disowns him. This is sufficient to clear the way for him to marry Treeshy ... but with no money their lives are rather sad; and Lewis' valiant attempt to promote his paintings by opening a museum fails utterly. The twist ending comes after they have died, and Lewis' more conventional sister, who made a successful marriage, inherits the supposedly worthless paintings ... and some of them are now realized as masterworks, so she makes a killing. I thought this story rather contrived, and to be honest I found the namedropping of the likes of Ruskin and Rossetti a bit tiresome. That said, I thought Lewis in particular a very well realized character -- he's not any sort of artistic critic of genius, he's a weak man who instead of submitting to his father submits to the views of Ruskin and Rossetti. And of course Wharton's prose is exceptional. It's not a great story at all, but worth reading. 

"The Old Maid" is, it seems, the story of this set which is most highly regarded, and that might be fair (though I also quite liked "New Year's Day".) It's about two cousins: Delia and Charlotte Lovell. Delia makes a good marriage with James Ralston, scion of a very traditional New York family. Charlotte -- who is, alas, a bit plain, and from a poorer branch of the family -- is a bit different -- she has started an orphanage, to care for some of unfortunate children (including black children), and so she seems doomed to be an old maid. But then she becomes betrothed to Joe Ralston. And Delia is thrilled for her cousin -- until she learns her secret. Charlotte's orphanage is in part designed to allow her to care for her illegitimate daughter, and her presumptive husband (who knows nothing of this) has insisted that she give up the orphanage (especially as it includes black children.) The other twist is that the father of her daughter Clementina is one Clement Spender -- who was the man Delia truly loved, but wouldn't marry because he wasn't quite respectable enough.

The upshot is that Charlotte cannot abandon her daughter, so she breaks off the engagement. And Delia agrees that Charlotte and her daughter should come live with her and her husband -- but of course her daughter's true parentage can never be revealed. And we jump to the future ... and the girl is of marriageable age, and in love with a presentable young man. But can a girl with no family get married? And Charlotte, of course, cannot reveal her involvement -- but the girl has actually long considered Delia her mother -- what if Delia adopts her? But how will Charlotte -- the Old Maid -- take that. It's a truly Whartonian conclusion ... an agonizing personal decision that seems forced on the character but necessary. I thought the depictions of Charlotte and Delia were excellent. (I'm not sure I quited believed in Clementina.)

"The Spark" tells of Hayley Delane, a man of good birth in New York society who married unwisely -- a rackety woman who has continued her bad ways, constantly taking up with younger men and all but flaunting her affairs in her husband's face. He is generally regarded as something of a fool for the way he continues to take this abuse, and indeed for having suddenly decided to marry her. But he seems to truly need her. The story is told from the point of view of a younger man, who at first takes the standard society view of the Delanes, but who then gets to know Hayley better, and indeed also to work with him. Hayley is a Civil War veteran who enlisted despite his father's disapproval, and who could have avoided service easily -- he had to lie about his age to get in. He was seriously wounded in the war. Yet somehow he doesn't seem to insist on attention for his service, like other veterans we are shown, and he won't talk about his experience. (The story seems set in about the '90s.) The narrator notices, behind the scenes, Hayley's occasional acts of nobility -- defending a horse from abuse by his wife's lover, then apologizing so that society will blame him and not the young man; at work, quietly ensuring that his company does not engage in shady schemes; caring for his wife's dishonest father when he is in need; and always protecting his wife when she gets into trouble -- when any other man would have divorced her. All this is very well portrayed ... what struck me as a bit off is the story of the "spark" that inspired Delane to be such a good man. The narrator eventually learns that Delane was cared for by a male nurse while wounded, who talked to him about his philosophy of life in such a way that Delane adopted a similar morality. We gather of course that this is Walt Whitman, and in the ironic conclusion the narrator insists on reading Whitman's poetry to the aging Delane (who is not a bookish man), with the idea of cheering him by showing him what a success his nurse became; and Delane is dumbfounded by the poetry, gently telling the narrator that he wishes "you hadn't told me that he wrote all that rubbish."

Finally, "New Year's Day" is again told by a young man, concerning something he saw when he was still a boy: a fire in a notorious hotel, from which Mrs. Lizzie Hazeldean and her lover are seen to emerge. Mrs. Hazeldean is suspected of betraying her invalid husband, and here's the proof society needs. The point of view shifts to Lizzie Hazeldean, as she rushes home from the fire to see her husband, in order to convince him she was with someone else. And all goes well enough -- it is clear that he is besotted with her; but too ill to give her the Society life she craves. He can only stay home and read his books -- books Lizzie Hazeldean doesn't care about at all. But we gather right away that she does care for her husband -- very deeply. And she knows he'll die soon, and is crushed by this. At his urging, she goes out again that night to a party, only to be cruelly cut by the society women who are aware of her straying. And within a year, her husband is dead. Her lover comes, and wishes to marry her -- but she refuses absolutely: there was only one man for her, her husband.

The narrator takes up the strand later, after he is grown, and he gets drawn into the orbit of Lizzie Hazeldean, who entertains regularly, receiving those who don't care about her reputation, particularly including respectable young men who like a "jolly" woman. He too gets to know Lizzie fairly well, and eventually learns the truth -- she truly loved her husband, and realized that he insisted on pampering her, even as his illness made it impossible to make a living, and as his family money was used up. So her affairs were simply, in essence, a form of prostitution -- her lovers would make her gifts, which she would use to convince her husband that she was as pampered as he wanted. I found all this affecting but hard to quite buy -- this is a case of people in the past with alien values that sometimes are just a bit too hard to understand. Still, I liked it -- and it's only fair to say that much of Wharton's work turns on similarly uncontemporary manners, and in other stories such as "Autre Temps ..." (my favorite of her shorts) and The House of Mirth (and Lizzie Hazeldean is much like Lily Bart in some ways) I was able to empathize somewhat more.

In sum -- these are fine novellas, but not for me at a level with either her best shorter work or her greatest novels. But still enjoyable reading.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Old Bestseller: Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

 Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

a review by Rich Horton

Long ago I formed a completely false view of Willa Cather's fiction, assuming it was dour, dreary, and message bound, so I ignored her. This was at the time that she was also being ignored by critics -- relegated to the status of "minor regionalist". Her work has been not so much rediscovered (My Ántonia at least always retained some readers) but re-evaluated, partly by feminist and Lesbian critics, but really more widely than that. I happened across her short novel A Lost Lady a few years ago and was entranced, and soon O Pioneers! and My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart were on my TBR pile. But I never got to them -- deadlines, too many books, too little time, all that. A couple of weeks ago I found a first (no dust-jacket, alas) of her well-regarded novel Death Comes for the Archbishop at an estate sale, and so I bought that, and half by accident ended up reading it.

Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia. Her family moved to Nebraska in 1883. Cather published pieces in the Red Cloud, NE, newspaper early, and planned to become a doctor. But at the University of Nebraska she continued to write, and switched to an English major, graduating in 1894. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, and taught school while also working for magazines and newspapers, and publishing occasional stories. She moved to New York to join the editorial staff at McClure's in 1906. (I encountered some editorial correspondence between Cather and a McClure's contributor, H. G. Dwight, when I was writing about Dwight's collection Stamboul Nights.) McClure's serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912, and her three famous "prairie novels", O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, soon followed. (A Lost Lady is also a  prairie story.) She won a Pulitzer in 1923 for her World War I novel One of Ours. Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, and it remains among her best regarded novels.

Cather lived in New York from 1906 (summering in New Brunswick eventually), and from 1908 she lived with Edith Lewis. Her only other close relationships were with women, and so it is (plausibly) assumed by many that she was a Lesbian, but she never so identified (publicly.) Of course that last is easy to understand given societal pressures -- but who knows? Somebody suggested recently that she may have been a trans man -- she regularly dressed in masculine clothes, hung out with boys more often as a child, called herself William at times -- again, who knows? I thought that interesting, at any rate. 

My copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop, as I noted above, seems to be a first, from Alfred E. Knopf. No dust jacket. It is inscribed on the inside front cover by Mildred P. Duncker, in pencil.

This is an historical novel, and very episodic, telling of the career of Bishop Jean Latour between 1851 and his death in 1889. The first date corresponds to his appointment as Bishop of New Mexico, after that territory became part of the United States. Latour is accompanied by his friend Father Joseph Vaillant. In several chapters, we see the slow process by which Latour -- with Vaillant's very considerable assitance -- asserts his authority over his people, both Indians and (former) Mexicans. At first he must convince the Bishop of Durango of his Papal authority. He deals with an established pastor who is a libertine and a parasite on his parishioners -- but still popular. There are some intriguing stories of Indian beliefs -- all held by sincere professing Catholics. Father Vaillant serves as partly his enforcer, partly his intermediary -- and then is sent to Colorado, eventually to become Bishop of Colorado. Bishop Latour, all along, plans to build a cathedral in Santa Fe, and finally gets it done. 

The portait is of a good man, but perhaps not a great man. His standard approach to people who are doing wrong is to wait them out (with perhaps a couple of exceptions) -- to accommodate them with disapproval, and then when they are gone, to assert his authority. He was truly appalled at the expulsion of the Navajos from their ancestral home, but while he protested, he did nothing more, and was fortunate to see them restored only a few years later. Latour is an honest and sincere man, but rather cold sometimes. Vaillant may not be quite so honest -- he is insistent on begging and cajoling and shaming people for contributions to the Church -- but he is more passionate. 

In the end, of course, both men must face death. And the scenes of the (now) Archbishop's dying days are moving and beautiful. Both he and Vaillant were successful -- they established strong dioceses in New Mexico and Colorado. Latour built his beautiful cathedral. Both truly led their parishioners to Christ (as they saw it, of course, I don't wish to debate theology and neither did Cather.) 

But, really, much of that fell a bit flat for me. What sung? Two things: the landscape, for one. Cather, in everything I've read by her, was a complete master of the description of landscape. New Mexico's desolate spaces -- and the utter beauty visible there -- is completely believable. I've been through New Mexico twice, once in the South and once the North (and a fraught trip that Northern one was, for unexpected reasons) and I think it is a beautiful place, and Cather captures its beauty -- including much I never saw -- wonderfully. Second -- the Indian stories. These are fascinating, beautiful in their own way, and never seen in a deprecating way. They are made real, and true. And, of course, much of this is the result of Cather's prose, which is elegant, not ornate at all, but quite lovely.

Finally, I should add, most of this novel is based on true events. The "real" Father Jean Latour was Jean-Baptiste Lamy, first Archbishop of Sante Fe; and the "real" Father Vaillant was Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, first Bishop of Denver. Most of the events portrayed in the novel are real, though some are invented (or reimagined from something that happened another time) as well. Lamy really did push for the building of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis Assisi in Santa Fe -- which is still there, and quite a lovely building. There are other historical characters presented, some under altered names, but some, including Kit Carson, under their own names. 

I didn't love this novel, but I liked it -- and I will be soon continuing to more of Willa Cather's work.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Birthday Review: Red Thunder (and some short stories), by John Varley

Today is John Varley's birthday. He's 73! I'm not sure people who weren't reading SF in the mid-70s realize what a phenomenom he was. His first sale (or maybe not, as we'll see below!) appeared in the very first issue of F&SF I ever saw (and bought), the August 1974 issue. He was THE GUY we looked for in the magazine from that time throughout the '70s. 

I haven't written a whole lot about his short fiction, because it mostly appeared long before I was writing. So I've assembled just a couple of pieces about his stories, and a blog post I wrote about one of his enjoyable later novels.

Red Thunder, by John Varley

a review by Rich Horton

John Varley's latest novel is Red Thunder. Varley is well-known as a writer much influenced by Heinlein, and this book pretty openly advertises its influence. To begin with the basic plot echoes slightly that of Heinlein's first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo. In the Heinlein book, a couple of teenagers, with the help of a knowledgeable older man, build a spaceship and travel to the Moon. In Red Thunder, four teenagers, with the help of a knowledgeable older man (an ex-astronaut), built a spaceship and travel to Mars. Also, Varley adds in a couple of very direct RAH references by way of character names: the main character is named Manny Garcia, and another major character is named Jubal. Basically, the book is good fun, propelled (pun intended) by a thoroughly implausible scientific advance but otherwise at least in the range of plausibility, with a heartfelt and not too overt message about responsibility and power at its core. 

One night Manny and his best friend Dak, and their girlfriends Kelly and Alicia, having just witnessed the latest Venture Star launch, run over a drunk man on a Florida beach. The Venture Star is a shuttle successor, and this latest launch would be boring and routine except that the passengers are the astronauts on NASA's Mars mission. (The book was obviously finished before February 1, 2003, and thus in mentioning the potential dangers of space travel Challenger is brought up a few times, but never Columbia -- one of the pitfalls of writing SF!) Manny and Dak are space nuts, and their girlfriends tolerate this. Manny and Dak are also trying to work their way through college on the Internet, handicapped by their relative poverty and the debased public school system. It turns out that the man they run over is Travis Broussard, an ex-astronaut who was quietly pushed out of NASA a few years previously. And Travis's ex-wife is one of the Mars astronauts.

They strike up a friendship with Travis (who is uninjured by the mishap, thanks to the sand he was laying in), and soon they meet his strange cousin Jubal. Jubal is mentally damaged by his father's abuse, but he is extremely intelligent in his odd way. And Manny stumbles across an invention of Jubal's, the potential of which Jubal doesn't recognize, but Travis does -- it offers the possibility of a spacedrive that can maintain 1g acceleration for approximately forever. One thing leads to another, and the kids hatch an idea for building a spaceship, powered by Jubal's drive, that can get to Mars fast enough to beat not only the American mission but the Chinese mission that is slightly ahead of the Americans. All becomes more urgent when Jubal figures out that the American spaceship has a flaw, which could lead to a disaster -- and only a spaceship like the one they propose to build could possibly rescue anyone. But there are problems, such as convincing the kids' parents to let them go ...

Well, as I said -- good fun. The characters are engaging and involving, though there is a bit of convenience in the way all the good guys are good in just the right ways. I'd say it was a perfectly appropriate YA book -- though there is a fair amount of sex (premarital and without bad consequences -- I suppose some people would object). The central SFnal McGuffin, Jubal's drive, is totally unbelievable, but why quibble? The other SFnal element, the technical and logistical details of building the rest of the spaceship, are, I suspect, a bit stretched, but Varley tries hard to make that stuff work, and it mostly does.

Vertex, August 1974

Reading this issue of Vertex, I find that "Picnic on Nearside", which appeared in the first issue of F&SF I ever bought, only TIED (more or less) for the honor of being Varley's first published story. I had never even heard of "Scoreboard" before. With good reason, it turns out. I don't think the story has ever been reprinted. It is set on Ceres, during a protracted and wasteful war between two companies. It's not terribly interesting, and worse, it turns on a gimmick rather blatantly borrowed (perhaps not intentionally) from Ben Bova and Myron R. Lewis's much more economical story "Men of Good Will". "Picnic on Nearside" isn't a masterpiece, but it's enjoyable, and it's an Eight Worlds story -- as such a good introduction to Varley. "Scoreboard" is a downright weak story, and not set in any of Varley's futures -- as such not a good introduction to Varley. So perhaps it's just as well that it seems to be forgotten.

Locus, June 2003

"The Bellman" (Asimov's, June) is set on a colonized Luna. A serial killer is targeting lonely pregnant women. Anna Louise Bach is one of a number of pregnant policewomen who volunteer to be "bait". Naturally, she's the one who attracts the Bellman's attention. The resulting chase sequence is truly exciting, though other aspects such as the Bellman's motives didn't quite convince me.

Review of Fourth Planet From the Sun

John Varley's "In the Hall of the Martian Kings" brilliantly represents the 70s – what writer could be more a 70s SF writer than Varley? This story stands outside his more familiar series. It's about an expedition marooned on Mars, and the unexpected means they find to survive. Much 70s SF, in retrospect, reads like an attempt to recast 50s tropes for a new audience, and Varley's story certainly fits, with its plucky survivors and optimistic science miracles – with such details as a female expedition leader, and lots of sex, marking it as a product of the 70s.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Stories with Titles Taken from Kubla Khan

Stories with Titles Taken from "Kubla Khan"

Many years ago on Usenet I put together (with help from other denizens of the great newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written) a list of stories which take their titles from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan". I believe this may be the poem (or, at least, relatively short poem) which has inspired the titles of more SF stories than any other. That list was on my old home page for a while, but has not been anywhere but on my hard drive since the demise of my old host, So I've decided to resurrect it here, just for fun. I've added a few new stories.

The list doesn't include a couple of ambiguous cases -- stories called "Demon Lover", for instance, nor one called "Floating Hair". It does include a couple instances where the story's title isn't a direct quote from the poem, but is clearly directly inspired by the poem. Also, the Raymond F. Jones story listed gets its title from Coleridge's preface to the poem discussing its origin, and why it's not "complete" (N.B.: I think it's plenty "complete", and that the Person from Porlock perhaps did us all a favor!) There are four based on "Down to a Sunless Sea", three called "Ancestral Voices", and two each called "In Xanadu" and "The Milk of Paradise". Doubtless there are some I have missed.

I've read several of these, and those I've read I've bolded.

Chris Amies, "Down to a Sunless Sea", 1994

Ray Bradbury, "A Miracle of Rare Device", 1962

Marion Zimmer Bradley, "Measureless to Man", 1962, Probably better known as "The Dark Intruder".

Thomas M. Disch, "In Xanadu", 2001, A fine story with chapter headings also derived from the poem.

Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, "Ancestral Voices", 1998

Malcolm Ferguson, "A Damsel with a Dulcimer", 1948

Sarah Frost, "Her Symphony and Song", 2014

R. Garcia y Robertson, "Into a Sunless Sea", 1994

Theodora Goss, "Singing of Mount Abora", 2008, World Fantasy Award winner and a wonderful story

David Graham, Down to a Sunless Sea, 1981

Rivka Jacobs, "The Milk of Paradise", 1994

Raymond F. Jones, "The Person From Porlock", 1947

Kari Maaren, Weave a Circle Round, 2017

Syne Mitchell, "Stately's Pleasure Dome", 2003

Kris Neville (writing as Henderson Starke), "As Holy and Enchanted", 1953

Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., "In Xanadu", 1976

Nat Schachner, "Ancestral Voices", 1933

S. M. Stirling, "Ancestral Voices", 1994

Cordwainer Smith, "Down to a Sunless Sea", 1975, This story was completed by Paul Linebarger's wife Genevieve Linebarger.

Brad Strickland, "Beneath a Waning Moon", 1993

Melanie Tem, "Woman Wailing" (poem), 2004

James Tiptree, Jr., "The Milk of Paradise", 1972, A great story, my favorite of this list

Stewart von Allmen, "He on Honeydew", 1995,