Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Complete Stories of Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.

 The Complete SF of Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.

a survey by Rich Horton

Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., turned 75 in January of 2021. I figured I should do a birthday review for him, and I quickly realized that he only published 16 stories in his short career (about 4 years.) Why not cover his complete works? So I tracked down the magazine issues with stories I hadn't already read (acquiring some duplicates in the process!)

You may well wonder who he is. He published a total of 16 SF or Fantasy stories, between 1962 and 1965. Essentially, these were written during his high school years. Fourteen of the stories appeared in Cele Goldsmith Lalli's magazines, Amazing and Fantastic, and the other two appeared in F&SF. The blurb to his first F&SF story revealed that he was attending Emory University in Atlanta. He became a journalist, and spent his entire career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

[Mr. Rohrer, if you run across this post, I'd love to hear more about your writing, and your experience with Cele Goldsmith Lalli as an editor, and, also, if you didn't mind, why you never returned to writing SF! Thanks! (I can be reached at rrhorton@prodigy.net.)]

There are only a couple of direct hints to his SF experience, in his own words. One comes from the blurb to his first F&SF story, "Keep Them Happy" (April 1965). It reads: "I don't have much of a biography ... since I haven't been alive very long. I have lived most of my life in Atlanta. I started writing when I was 8; and I intend to go on writing in some form or another until I am dead or otherwise debilitated. My favorite composer is Brahms; my favorite writers are Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway; my favorite movie is Citizen Kane." I suppose he kept to his intention of writing "in some form" -- alas, that form seems to have been exclusively journalism, as no further SF/F stories eventuated.

The other hint to his writing is a brief piece about the genesis of "Keep Them Happy" that was written for the facsimile edition of that issue of F&SF that was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1981. He reveals that the story was written in the summer of 1964, after he had graduated from high school and before he went to college. Indeed, he wrote 11 stories that summer! Which explains why so many appeared in a rush in late 1964 and early 1965. Apparently, this was the first story that Lalli ever rejected, so he sent it to F&SF. It's one of his best stories, so I suspect Lalli rejected it more because she already had a lot of his stories in her inventory than for quality. He also notes that his other story "The Man Who Found Proteus" was sparked by his use of the word "protean" in "Keep Them Happy". The inspiration for "Keep Them Happy" is credited to his frustrating inability to ask out a high school crush, though he's quick to emphasize that his situation doesn't resemble the rather dark situation in the story. Influences mentioned are Bradbury, Bloch, Matheson, and Hemingway. And the final sentences of his brief memoir: "That's the way I had fun those days. I had a lot of fun that summer."

I can't honestly say I thought any of Robert Rohrer's stories great, but they did keep getting better, and the work published in 1965 was getting quite interesting. His worldview -- as expressed in the stories -- was pretty dark, perhaps too much so -- there is a certain sense of the cynical teenager in that viewpoint. Still, it would have been interesting to see where he went had he continued to "have fun" in the way he did in those days in his later life.

(Note: his byline was variously "Robert Rohrer", "Robert H. Rohrer", and "Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.".)

Fantastic, March 1962

"Decision" is the first story Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., published. He was 16 when the story appeared, and presumably 15 when he wrote it. That's pretty impressive! The story is minor but not bad. It concerns a team of individuals dealing with a crisis -- and it's soon clear that they are the team operating a politician giving a major speech, but threated by an assassin. From within him! And they must make a split second decision ...

Amazing, October 1962

Last, another Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., story. I’ve covered him before — he was a very precocious author, 16 years old when this story, “Pattern” (his second), was published. He ended up publishing 16 stories in all, mostly in Amazing/Fantastic and in F&SF, all before he turned 20. Then he stopped, apparently losing interest. His father was a physicist at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Richard Moore reported that he met him (the son)… he had become a journalist and given up SF writing.

His stories showed real promise — not great stuff, but sometimes quite decent: had he wanted to, he might have become pretty good

Anyway, “Pattern” concerns an energy creature in space that encounters a ship with a human crewman. Desperate for sustenance, he tries to consume the “life-impulse” of the human, but its internal “pattern” is too different, and a sort of battle ensues, which the human wins, but at a scary cost. Not a great story, but not bad, with a nicely turned conclusion.

Fantastic, April 1963

"A Fate Worse Than ..." is set in a world where everyone is a Satanist. The protagonist -- named, ironically, Priestley -- summons an angel to try to force it to give him three wishes ... And, of course, the angel finds a way to make it work against Priestley. The story really doesn't work -- the satirical reversal of swearing and praying is vaguely amusing for a bit, but the biter bit reversal is indistinguishable from a typical "Deal With the Devil" story, and the means by which Priestley is doomed is incredibly lame.

Amazing, August 1964

And the other story is “Furnace of the Blue Flame” (6,200 words) by Robert Rohrer. Rohrer had a very odd career. He published 16 stories between 1962 and 1965, mostly in Goldsmith’s magazines (two appeared in F&SF). One story was picked up for one of Judith Merril’s Bests, another for a Best from F&SF volume. The really odd thing is that he was 16(!) when his first story was published, and only 19 when the last appeared. His father was a Physics Professor at Emory University, and the son became a journalist.

“Furnace of the Blue Flame” is actually pretty bad. It’s post-Apocalyptic, about a man traveling the US (complete with silly corrupted place names like Nuyuk, Bigchi, and Lanna), trying to reintroduce learning and knowledge to people. He encounters a village dominated by a vile man who punishes those who resist him with the title furnace – which we immediately realize is a nuclear reactor. The resolution is only slightly more believable than the refrigerator scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Amazing, September 1964

"The Sheeted Dead" by Robert Rohrer, is SF horror, in which a terrible interplanetary war left a radioactive hell in space. Those who fought were left in space, or buried on Earth, and the survivors on Earth live behind an electromagnetic shield. But then some of the dead soldiers arise ... It's actually pretty well done, with a stark message about the horrors of war finally visited on those who avoided it.

Amazing, October 1964

Robert Rohrer contributes "The Intruders", straight-up space horror. Harley is one of two crewmen on a space ship, but he has succumbed to space fear, and gone mad. He's convinced the ship is his only ally, and he's already killed his crewmate, who tried to lock him up. Now another ship has come to try see what's going on. It's pretty well done "madman tracks down everyone else in the story" stuff, though really anything more than that.

Fantastic, November 1964

"The Man Who Found Proteus" is in a sense Robert H. Rohrer's most successful story, in that it scored a selection to Judith Merril's 10th Annual Best SF anthology. It's fine, but it's not great -- a very short story about a prospector who, one day, finds his mule answering him when he makes a remark. Soon he learns that his mule has been eaten by a shapeshifting character that calls itself "Proteus". This being a Robert Rohrer story -- the prospector isn't going to come out of this well! As I said, it's not bad. By this time in his life Rohrer was beginning to figure out this writing thing.

It turns out another story in this issue is also by Rohrer, though it's bylined "Howard Lyon", apparently hewing to the old tradition that suggested readers would balk at more than one story by the same writer. "Hell" is another short-short, and a thinnish one, in which a nasty man comes to Hell after his death, confident that the sorts of psychological torments that are all the rage these days won't bother him! Well, maybe not, but sometimes the old traditions are the best!

Amazing, January 1965

Many of these late Rohrer stories concern disaster -- and madness -- in space. "The Hard Way" concerns a ship taking a bunch of convicts to Mercury, which overshoots and is drawn inexorably to the Sun. As with many of these stories, the terrible problem is revealed and then ... nothing happens, we simply see the grim results of the initial situation.

Fantastic, March 1965

"Iron" is Robert H. Rohrer's first cover story, with the illustration by Paula McLane. It's opens with an alien waking up in the "Mind Prison". Apparently he was imprisoned there after his metal race tried to invade Earth. After 1000 years he is free, and he goes looking for a way to fetch his people and try again to conquer Earth. But to his surprise only robots remain -- apparently all the humans were killed -- and how is a secret, even from the robots. ... the story turns somewhat unconvincingly on the robots' supposed horror at what happened. And the alien's fate is -- well, he's a protagonist in a Robert Rohrer story! Okay stuff, not special.

Amazing, March 1965

Robert Rohrer contributes "Be Yourself". Maxwell finds himself imprisoned -- it seems there's a duplicate of him in prison as well. He's a military man, and there's been a battle with the alien Brgll, who seem to be shapechangers. And now the government isn't sure with Maxwell is the real one! This is headed to a twist ending, guessable but nicely enough executed.

Amazing, April 1965

"Greendark in the Cairn" is a fairly straightforward story of the Captain of a spaceship who becomes convinced he is being driven mad by enemies. His ship is encountering a ship of the enemy (who apparently destroyed another ship with 1500 civilians aboard) and the Captain must make the decision to attack, but his mind is losing it. I have to say I didn't see the point, really -- so, he's going mad, for whatever reason, and as a result he fails to perform his duty. There seems nothing more to the story, to be honest. 

Fantastic, April 1965

"Predator" is another disaster in space story, this one a bit more intriguing though I don't think it came off just right. A ship seems to be in trouble on re-entry, but on board the ship all we see is a waiter in pain, and menacing, it seems, some women. The effect aimed at seems psychological horror, and I felt it came close to working but really didn't.

F&SF, April 1965

Robert Rohrer appears for the first time in a magazine edited by someone other than Cele Goldsmith Lalli. "Keep Them Happy" is, I think, one of his best stories. It's set in a future in which the cruelty of capital punishment is intended to be ameliorated by making the convicted individuals as happy as possible before they die. In this case, the murderer is a woman who killed her husband, and the man in charge of her case decides that what she needs is a man to love -- and he will be the one. But, of course, she is guilty -- so her fate is sealed.

Amazing, May 1965

Robert Rohrer’s “The Man from Party Ten” was his second to last story – as noted before, Rohrer was a teenaged writer, who published in Goldsmith/Lalli’s magazines and in F&SF, before abandoning the field, forever, more or less when he went to college. (He became a journalist.) This story is efficiently and cynically told, about a man in charge of a war party during some sort of extended conflict, between nobles and peasants, who encounters a helpful household and takes hospitality from them. The resolution is shocking but, by then, pretty much what we expect.

F&SF, August 1965

"Explosion" ended up being Robert Roher's last published story. And it's another pretty good one. A starship happens to intersect the path of a missile that had been launched but never expended in a previous war. Now it's peacetime, and one result is that the former enemies are sometimes members of crews of human ships. As this story goes on, we see the humans and the alien Maxyd are still unable to trust each other -- with predictable results as the missile approaches ...

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Review: A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

 A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

a review by Rich Horton

Last year, on my last business trip before the pandemic shut everything down, I started reading Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire. I was looking forward to it -- it had gotten great reviews, it seemed a possible Hugo nominee, and I had really enjoyed Martine's story "The Hydraulic Emperor". I got a few chapters in, and was quite enjoying it -- and then came the lockdown, and in between the psychical effects of that, and some deadlines, I put the book aside. It went on to not just receive a Hugo nomination, but to win the Hugo (and also the Compton Crook award.)

When her new novel, a sequel called A Desolation Called Peace, came out I thought to myself, OK, it's really time for me to read A Memory Called Empire! And I decided to use my recently obtained Audible subscription to listen to it. (As I did recently with Curious Toys, Piranesi, and The Stars are Legion -- using my commuting time to listen to audio books is proving a great way to tackle my TBR pile.)  

Not to bury the lede too far then -- this novel is immensely fun. It is true Space Opera, from one angle a case of a huge and ever-expanding interstellar empire being resisted by a tiny and plucky space station. But it's more complex than that. Because the "resistance" of the station, Lsel, is entirely diplomatic. Indeed, there are no space battles (though my guess is things might be different in the sequel.) And Teixcalaan, the empire, is portrayed as admirable in many ways (and kind of bad in the way of empires in other ways.) It's also the story of a succession crisis, and it's the story of someone finally encountering the culture she has long admired, and learning a little about it. And it's action-packed -- the novel takes place at a full sprint lasting little over a week. 

The main character is Mahit Dzmare, who arrives at Teixcalaan as the main action begins, ready to take up her duties as the new Ambassador from Lsel Station. She carries an "imago machine", which has the memories from 15 years ago of her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn (and also his memories of his predecessor etc.) Almost as soon as she arrives she confronts two major issues -- Yskandr has died, almost certainly murdered, and her imago has malfunctioned, so she doesn't even have the help of Yskandr's experience (even 15 years out of date experience.) (And Lsel has provided her ridiculously little instruction or strategical guidance.)

Very quickly things get even more complicated. Mahit is present at a bombing, and her Teixcalaan-provided cultural liaison is injured. Mahit ends up hiding out (more or less) with one of the Emperor's closest advisors, or ezuazacats, Nineteen Adze. Mahit is nearly poisoned herself. She realizes that Yskandr had been a lover of both Nineteen Adze and the Emperor. She meets one of the Emperor's anointed co-Emperors (thus a potential successor), and she realizes that the Emperor, very old and in poor health, may die soon, and the issue of the succession is terribly fraught, with candidates including one of the Emperor's crechemates, and an influential and rich provincial man, and also the Emperor's 90% clone, who is only ten. Not to mention a would-be usurper, One Lightning, who hopes to build a military reputation, perhaps by invading Lsel Station. And the Emperor himself has a rather horrifying idea concerning his successor.

Lsel sends Mahit an urgent message, which she can only read with Yskandr's help -- which means she needs to acquire his more recent imago from his dead body, and to undergo absurdly risky surgery to integrate it with her brain. And it's clear that mysterious, hostile, and uncommunicative aliens are threatening the Empire through various jump gates, including ones in close proximity to Lsel. And her only allies, are Teixcalaan, none wholly trustworthy -- Nineteen Adze, who is clearly a political creature through and through; and then Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, who are young and who probably have more loyalty to Teixcalaan than to Mahit. 

The action really never stops. There is danger, eventual tragedy, some sexual tension and intrigue, rebellions from different directions ... The resolution is pretty powerful, and satisfying. It makes emotional sense (for several characters) and it makes strategic sense. And it's a pretty clear slingshot to the next book -- because, you know, there are still those mysterious aliens! Indeed, this is an opening volume that comes to sensible closure on its own terms, but also promises another book that should have its own surprises and revelations.

I do have -- naturally -- some caveats. The biggest ones concern Lsel Station's laughably inadequate preparation of Mahit for her job. She doesn't even get a portfolio, as it were -- that is, a clear statement of Lsel's goals. I also found rather implausible the notion that Yskandr could successfully (to a degree) perform diplomacy by becoming the lover of two of the 5 or so most powerful people in the Teixcalaan Empire. (To say nothing of the Ambassadorial ethics implied.) And there were minor nits -- not really important -- such as an early exchange in which it becomes clear that Mahit, who had spent much of her life reading everything she possibly can about Teixcalaan, has no idea they bury their dead. (The Stationers of Lsel recycle their dead, naturally -- but by burning, which doesn't really seem the best way to recycle.)

In a way, those flaws are inherent to lots of Space Opera. Intrigue and rapid action are more interesting than, months of diplomatic communications and negotiations. And this novel does intrigue -- and color -- very well. I truly love the Teixcalaan naming conventions, for example. Gender roles are not emphasized at all, but this seems to be because both Teixcalaan and Lsel seem to be all but free of gender splits of any sort. (Partly because almost all pregnancies are carried in artificial wombs -- and even conception seems technologically controlled, as the several mentions of clones of a certain percentage indicate.) I think there's a lot of room for more and deeper exploration of the cultures of both Lsel and Teixcalaan in future books, though it may be that that's not what Martine is really interested in dealing with. Which is fine -- hinted background are cooler in many ways.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading A Memory Called Empire, and I won't let the wait before reading A Desolation Called Peace be nearly as long!

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Review: Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand

 Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand

a review by Rich Horton

Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, but for reasons it's hard to parse, I had not read any of her novels. Well, in reality the reasons aren't so hard to parse -- I simply don't read as many novels as I should, in great part because I read so much short fiction. Also, Hand's recent novels have been crime novels -- and don't get me wrong, I like crime novels, and I have nothing against reading them, but I still concentrate on 1) science fiction; and 2) older novels. My wife, who reads a lot of mysteries, did read and enjoy two of Hand's recent books, both crime novels: Generation Loss and the book at hand, Curious Toys. As for me, the longest story I'd read by Hand was her utterly lovely long novella about the English folk revival (of which I'm a big fan anyway!) Wylding Hall. But her other short fiction is magnificent as well, stories like "Near Zennor", "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon", "Cleopatra Brimstone", "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol", "Illyria", "The Least Trumps" ... and I could go on and on. I've known that I should read her novels for a long time -- her early Winterlong trilogy looks wonderful ...

So finally I pulled the trigger, with Curious Toys, from 2019. This novel is set in Chicago in 1915. The novel is primarily set at Riverview Park, an actual amusement park that operated from 1904 to 1967. (I grew up in the Chicago suburbs but I was just a bit too young -- the park formally closed two days before my eighth birthday -- to be aware of it.) There are many viewpoint characters but the book truly centers on Pin Maffucci, a 14 year old girl who dresses like a boy, partly because her mother wants to keep her safe, partly because that way she can more easily get odd jobs. But really because she likes it that way. Pin's main odd job is to run marijuana for one of the park's performers, a man who dresses as half woman/half man for his sideshow. One place she takes the drugs is to Essanay, a movie studio in Chicago, which suits her because she is infatuated with one of the young actresses there. 

Pin has a back story -- her sister was abducted and (presumably) murdered a couple of years earlier. Her mother is now a fortuneteller at the park, having changed their name and left their previous home partly because of the violence of the Black Hand gang that controls their old neighborhood. It turns out that a security guard at Riverview Park is a former policeman, Francis Bacon, who lost his job when he dared stand up to the Black Hand, which had plenty of police and judges under their control. This policeman is another POV character. Another key character is a very strange man who Pin notices hanging around the park -- we learn soon that this is Henry Darger, now one of the most famous outsider artists in history. Henry is obsessed with protecting young girls from violence -- this gives him a tie to Pin (and her lost sister) -- but it also makes Pin suspicious of him. 

The action is driven by the disappearance of a young girl in an underground water ride. Pin and Henry (separately) witness this girl enter the ride in the company of an adult man, and then the see the man leave alone. And Pin recognized the girl as another actress at the movie studio -- indeed, an actress Charlie Chaplin had taken a creepy interest in. At first no one believes Pin's story, but then the girl is found. And, depressingly, the first suspect is a black man who was working at the ride, even though there's no plausible reason to believe he committed the crime. Pin is pushed to do what she can to investigate ... and eventually she yields to Henry's insistence that he can help. Francis, as a security guard, is also investigating. Suspects eventually include Charlie Chaplin himself (who did seem to have an unhealthy attraction to just pubescent girls), as well as another of Pin's acquaintances, a scenarist at Essanay who wants to write dark and violent screenplays. And the questions arises -- is there a connection with the disappearance of Pin's sister? Or with the very young girl Henry is fascinated with? Or with other disappearances in different amusement parks?

The eventual solution to the murders is not really that interesting. We have been given glimpses of the murderer in action anyway -- and his identity is not that much of a surprise. What's really fascinating is the look at Chicago in 1915, and at Riverview Park. Also the characters -- Pin in particular, but Henry and Francis and Pin's mother and various minor characters are involving. Many of the characters, good and bad, are queer (each in their own way), and fully realized within a culture wholly different to today's. The look at silent movies in at this time is a tiny part of the book, but fascinating too, as are the peeks we get at other the other entertainments offered at the amusement park. There's a bit of an envoi, giving us a look at the futures for Henry (a matter of historical record, of course) and Pin, which serves as a striking bit of timebinding from the teens to the '70s, giving real perspective to the connections between, and differences between, 1915, 1970 (and, by implication, the present day, about as far from 1970 as that was from 1915.)