Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

by Rich Horton

Recently I was glancing through the ISFDB entry for Robert Silverberg, looking mainly at his early novels (written in the 1950s), and I realized that I had read nearly all of them. It is perhaps a silly thing to be completist about -- trying to read the products of a young and very prolific writer who had not yet fully mastered his craft, and, worse, who was not yet writing with real ambition -- instead, by his own account, spending much of his time producing yardgoods to fill magazines under a contract whereby the editor would accept a certain number of words per month essentially sight unseen. (It should be said that Silverberg in this period was already sufficiently competent that this early work remains consistently readable, and occasionally interesting, but it is never outstanding.) Indeed, when I mentioned to him that I was having a hard time finding a couple of his early books, he suggested it would be much more rewarding to reread Downward to the Earth instead -- and likely he was right.

(For that matter, even if I finish all these early SF novels, the ones by Silverberg as well as by "Calvin Knox" or "David Osborne", there will still be rafts of work from other genres, such as the crime fiction and soft porn he wrote under such names as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, and Stan Vincent.)

All that said, I did find a copy of Silverberg's 1958 novel Starman's Quest, published by Gnome Press, for a reasonable price. (The novel had a 1969 reprint, and a more recent trade paperback edition is available, which may make used books more affordable.) It seems to be the only form of this story -- many other Silverberg novels were originally published as novellas. (Indeed, sometimes one version was under Silverberg's name, and the other as by one of his pseudonyms, which made the pseudonyms pretty open! (I don't think Silverberg minded.))

Starman's Quest begins with an introductory fictional quote from an essay, discussing the Lexman Spacedrive, which allowed what Ursula Le Guin later dubbed NAFAL ("Nearly as fast as light") travel between stars; and also mention one James Cavour's failed attempt at a hyperdrive. Thus, in the year 3876, the settled worlds are linked by a fleet of starships, crewed by "Starmen", who typically live their entire lives on ship. Due to the Fitzgerald Contraction -- that is, more familiarly, time dilation -- their lives extend for hundreds of years objective time, but only a normal span subjectively. As the novel opens, the Valhalla is returning to Earth from a trip to Alpha Centauri. Alan Donnell is just turning 17. His father is the Captain. Alan himself is a twin, but his brother Steve jumped ship the last time they were at Earth. Alan wants to track down his brother, against his bitter father's wishes, though he knows that Steve is now nine years, subjective, older than him. Alan is also obsessed with the research of Cavour -- what if Cavour's discoveries really could lead to a working hyperdrive?

All this, really, is potentially fuel for a fascinating book. The sociological effects of the slower than light travel, the Starmen who are always years out of date when they come to a new planet, are worth exploring. The effects of a sudden change to hyperdrive, were it too happen, are also worth a look. There are other worthy ideas -- Alan's ratlike "pet", actually an intelligent alien from Epsilon Eridani, is one. The horribly crowded and cramped society on Earth is another. Alan's relationship with his father and his "older" twin brother could be interesting, and so too the surely unusual society of the starships -- with just a couple of hundred or so people on each. Thing is, Silverberg really doesn't do justice to any of these aspects, and the only one he tries to cover is Earth society.

Anyway, Alan decides to leave the Enclave where the Starmen stay, and go look for Steve. Alas, finding one person in a huge city is all but impossible. Especially as Alan doesn't understand Earth customs at all. Luckily, he is saved from jail or a beating or worse by a guy named Max Hawkes, who turns out to be an expert gambler. It seems that gambling is about the only job available for people not born into a profession. Max helps Alan find Steve (rather luckily) and then gives him an offer -- stay on Earth, and he'll teach him how to gamble ... and Alan takes him up on it (after returning Steve to the Valhalla) -- largely because Alan thinks that on Earth he can study James Cavour's work and maybe find more hints ... To be sure, though, Max will exact a price for his assistance ... 

Things work out a) pretty much as you will have expected; and b) involving a lot of sheer ridiculous luck. Leading to a cute enough if all too convenient conclusion, and leaving all the interesting questions I had about this future society unanswered. 

So -- is it a good novel? No. Is it readable? Yes -- Silverberg was from the beginning a competent writer who could keep your interest. Does it hint at the writer Silverberg became? Not really, except in that it does have the seeds of some pretty worthwhile ideas. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Review: Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Review: Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

by Rich Horton

The 2021 winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel was Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Johnson attracted my attention with some excellent short fiction -- I have used two of her stories in my Best of the Year books. Yet I hadn't heard of this novel until it won the World Fantasy Award -- but then, I miss lots of novels. Still -- it's a book that deserves your attention.

The novel is told in three sections, each from the POV of a different character. It opens with Phyllis Le Blanc, a black woman who can pass for white, talking with her white lover, a dentist. It seems her -- boss, I suppose, a mobster named Russian Vic, wants her to do another job for him -- and we realize that Phyllis is a hitwoman for Vic, his Angel of Death -- and that this is related to her preternatural skill with knives, a skill she believes is "Saint's Hands", a supernatural gift that has come to occasional people in her family (and, we later learn, people in other black families.) The woman she is supposed to kill actually shows up at her door the next morning -- but Phyllis, or Pea, is still hoping she can avoid do this job, as she has declined Vic's requests for months.

The rest of this section reads largely as noir: we are submerged in Russian Vic's world, which includes the dentist; and Tamara the Snake Dancer, and Pea's old lover Dev, a mixed race man with an English mother and a dead Indian (from India) father; and Vic's top assistant, Walter Finch, called Red Man. We learn that Vic is obsessed with "Saint's Hands", and has tried to acquire as many as he can, by killing their owners; and the Pea's belief that Vic will only assign her hits of people who really deserve it is absurdly naive; and that Pea's job has estranged her, to a degree, from her sister and her niece and nephew; and that a war is coming -- the book is set in 1941/1942. The noir aspect seems to point to a confrontation between Pea and Russian Vic, but that comes suddenly, and early, with somewhat shocking results.

So the second part is told by Dev, after he and Pea get back together, and leave the city, to a house Dev owns in upstate New York. Both are trying to stay separate from their criminal past (though Dev, it should be noted, was actually a policeman informing on Russian Vic, though at the same time protecting some of his friends.) But the outside world intrudes -- Dev is drafted, and (as a pacifist, despite his involvement in many murders, which tortures his conscience) he doesn't feel he can serve -- but the only ways to solve that problem involve asking for help from either the police or his criminal associates. Pea is also fighting her guilt over her killings, her feeling that her "hands" are angry with her, and, eventually, a difficult pregnancy. The toll of America's racist system hangs heavy as well, embodied here by the corrupt family that has ruled this small town for decades, and their treatment of their maid, and her son, who has Saint's hands as well. This part too ends with a bang.

The final section is told by Tamara, as Dev (and also Tamara's actor boyfriend) are off at war, and Tamara is staying with Pea. Here (and, really, throughout the book) we learn about the past of all three characters, and we learn more about how racism, in both the South and North, has driven their lives. Pea's pregnancy is fraught, the men at war are constantly in danger, and Tamara is taken up with her own guilt, both about her past association with a criminal organization, that she tried to rationalize away, and her present failure -- maybe? -- to fully help Dev and Pea and their coming child. Again, the ending is shocking, though in a different way, as a racist system is exposed even more fully, even while there are hopeful hints that Dev and Pea's child, Durga, is fated to be involved in the future battles against oppression.

My description, I feel, scants the real power of the book. Yes, there is (in section one) a noirish atmosphere, and criminal violence, and there is intrigue in the other parts as well. There is also jazz, and dancing, and descriptions of the black theater scene in the segregated South. (The North, theoretically less segregated, is shown as effectively as bad.) But the real heart is interior -- as each character battles with their past, their conscience, their present struggles, their supernatural powers. The characters are wholly believable, and the prose is strong. The other characters are well depicted, too, particularly Walter Finch, Vic's sidekick and eventual successor, truly a violent criminal but also, at heart, a moral man (who knows he sins) and a great friend. It's a very powerful novel, angry, deeply, wrenchingly sad, with a seed of hope.

I will confess that I thought another novel that year would win the World Fantasy Award -- Susanna Clarke's Piranesi. (And I will admit that I would still have chosen Piranesi, even now.) But it seems to me comparing those two novels reveals the fundamental issue behind all awards: there is no absolute scale on which we can rate art. These are two novels, published in the same year, and each indubitably Fantasy. But there are as different to each other as could be -- in setting, theme, tone. Piranesi's greatest strength is beauty and mystery. Trouble the Saints is darker (though Piranesi is dark enough it its way) and far angrier, and it presents real (and wretched) history far more directly and convincingly. There is no reason to choose one or the other -- read them both!

I'll add one more note -- I have both the Kindle version, and, for my recent read, the audiobook. And the audio version is outstanding -- it's read by Shayna Small and Neil Shah, and both narrators capture the multiple voices (and accents) beautifully.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Miss Buncle's Book, by D. E. Stevenson

Old Bestseller Review: Miss Buncle's Book, by D. E. Stevenson

by Rich Horton

I recently reviewed two relatively obscure novels by D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973), a very popular British writer of the last century (and a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson). I had problems with both of these books -- Rochester's Wife and The Empty World -- though it was clear despite that the Stevenson had strong narrative gifts. I decided I should read one of her more popular books, and as I already had a copy of Miss Buncle's Book, which Stevenson enthusiast Scott Thompson, of the Furrowed Middlebrow blog, calls one of his favorite books of all time, I decided that would be next. And, not to bury the lede -- that proved to be a good choice. Miss Buncle's Book is much better than the other two I read, very funny, very sweet, a delightful read. 

Miss Buncle's Book was published in 1934. It was D. E. Stevenson's third novel. The first, Peter West, from 1923, doesn't seem to have made much of an impact. The second, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1932), based to a great extent on her diaries from her time as an Army wife, was much more successful (and indeed four more Mrs. Tim books followed.) Miss Buncle's Book was also a success, and indeed by this time Stevenson was established as a popular writer.

Miss Buncle's Book is set in Silverstream, a small English village. Miss Buncle is a fortyish woman, a spinster, and as the book opens in some financial distress -- the investments she lives on have collapsed, pretty much, due the to the depression. So she has written a novel, set in a village called Copperfield, very closely based on Silverstream, and she has sent it off to the first publisher she found alphabetically, Abbot and Spicer. 

I'll pause here and note that Miss Buncle is almost exactly the same age as D. E. Stevenson (at that time). And D. E. Stevenson's first success (Mrs. Tim of the Regiment) was based very closely on her real life. The similarities, perhaps, end there -- for one thing, Miss Buncle is a spinster at 40 or so, and Stevenson married in her mid 20s. But it's still an amusing thing to note.

Miss Buncle, the day the book opens, gets a letter from Abbot and Spicer -- they wish to publish her book! The novel's point of view switches from character to character throughout, and we get the viewpoint of Mr. Abbot, who loves the book, but isn't sure whether the author is a simple writer who has no idea what he's done (the book is signed "John Smith") or a clever man who has written a satire. But he knows the book will be a success. Especially after he changes the title from Chronicle of an English Village to Disturber of the Peace. The book consists of a first part carefully depicting various residents of the village, and their everyday life. Then a "Golden Boy" appears, and his influence causes the villagers to step out of their normal routine, doing unexpected things -- romance, travel, etc.

Miss Buncle's Book -- that is, Stevenson's novel -- also portrays the residents of the village, Silverstream, going about ordinary life. And the disturber of their peace is the publication of Miss Buncle's novel. The characters include the new vicar, Ernest Hathaway; the doctor, John Walker, and his wife Sarah; Vivian Greensleeves, an avaricious widow; Colonel Weatherford; his neighbor Dorothea Budd; the stuck up Mrs. Featherstone Hogg and her henpecked husband; old Mrs. Carter and her granddaughter Sally; two unmarried women, Miss King and Miss Pretty, who live together; an aspiring writer, Stephen Bulmer, who is very abusive to his wife Margaret and their two children; and several more. Miss Buncle's novel has more or less the same set of characters (even including herself, as the somewhat more glamorous Elizabeth Wade), and her keen eye has ferreted out some secrets, including Mrs. Featherstone Hogg's past as a chorus girl; Stephen Bulmer's abusiveness; and the appropriateness of a match between Colonel Weatherford and his neighbor.

Sarah Walker is the first to read the novel, and she recognizes her home village quickly, and delights in the depiction of her fellow villagers. But of course those who are depicted less flatteringly eventually discover the book (which becomes a bestseller) and their reaction is less happy. (Notable is the reaction of Miss King and Miss Pretty, who in Disturber of the Peace head off to Samarkand together -- they are actually sympathetically portrayed by both Miss Buncle and D. E. Stevenson, but the clear implication that they are Lesbians disturbs them (a reference is made to a recent scandalous book, presumably The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall. When I read Rochester's Wife I wondered if one character, who at the end heads to India with her intimate friend, was intended to be read as a Lesbian, and back then I doubted Stevenson meant it, but now I think maybe she did, and I'd say her attitude is pretty positive on the whole.) 

The rest of the book ,then, involves the efforts of some of the villagers to uncover the real identity of "John Smith", with the object of some sort of punishment. Other aren't so unhappy, and some of them manage to change their lives for the better, either directly following what happened in Disturber of the Peace, or in reaction to it. And some characters -- including Miss Buncle! -- have quite unexpected developments.

Well, none of that really gets much at what makes the book enjoyable. Part of it is Stevenson's narrative gift. She simply could, as they say, tell a story -- make you want to keep reading. And her characters come to life (if sometimes they are fairly clearly "types".) But more than that -- this book is often really very funny. Neither of the other Stevenson books I have read were in any sense comic (and there's no reason they should have been) but Miss Buncle's Book is, and very successfully so. If some of the plot developments are a tad convenient, or easy -- the good people get nice things, the bad people either learn the error of their ways or are punished (somewhat gently.) The book does have its classist side -- the servants, for instance, though coming across as real people, do seem to know their place. And there is one romance that bothered me just a bit -- between a man in his mid to late 20s and a 17 year old girl. In 1934 I daresay that wouldn't have raised eyebrows. 

There are sequels to this book, and they seem worth a try. And I have a couple more Stevenson books on hand, and I just ordered a couple more from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Books. So this won't be the last D. E. Stevenson book I read.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Review: High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson

Review: High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson

by Rich Horton

Here's another look at a recent novella.

I was delighted to get a chance to talk with Kelly Robson and her wife Alyx Dellamonica at Windycon recently, and I also came away with this new novella from Kelly, High Times in the Low Parliament. She discussed its writing on a panel -- she wrote it as a sort of way to cope with the pandemic, so it's explicity a rather -- well, extremely! -- lighthearted novel. Despite that, it's set in a time a crisis! I guess there's a message there.

Lana Baker is a scribe in London, and also part of a big family, which, alas, doesn't much appreciate her lack of interest in the family trade (baking, natch!) and her significant interest in spending times in pubs or in the arms of any pretty woman who catches her eyes. She also has a talent for getting in trouble. And one day, her love of kisses doom her -- as a pretty women convinces her to write a letter and take it to Masterwort, the fairy who is the Director Legate of the Low Parliament Delegation from Angland. This is a trick -- as the Delegation needs a scribe, and before she knows it, Lana is the new scribe.

We gather that this version of Earth is a bit different from ours -- everyone is a woman, for one thing, and fairies live among humans, and pretty much seems to rule. One reason is that humans are quarrelsome and warlike, and fairies don't like that. (Though they seem pretty quarrelsome too!) But the members of Parliament -- which seems a pan-European body -- are all humans, though under the supervision of fairies. Parliament is located on an island of sorts in the sea, and Lana soon learns that there is a problem -- a big one. If the members of Parliament can't come to agreement on the questions they consider, Parliament will be dissolved -- more or less literally, as the sea will overrun it, dooming all there. And lately every question has ended in a hung vote.

Lana, however, is unable to be anything but cheerful, optimistic, and lusty. She takes up her role as scribe for Angland, recording the proceedings. And before long she has somehow made friends with the irascible fairy Beauty Bugbite. And she is also infatuated with one of the deputies from this world's France-analog, a beautiful dancer named Eloquentia.

The rest of the story follows Lana's attempts to seduce or be seduced by Eloquentia, with the reluctant help of Bugbite. At the same time she is slowly learning something about the problems in Parliament, which seem to an extent to be caused by the Anglish Deputy from Berkingmiddleshire. But all efforts by the more reasonable members of Parliament are frustrated by silly rules and obstructionism. Can Lana, Eloquentia, and Bugbite save the day? Well, of course, but not without plenty of setbacks.

It's all gleefully and lushly written, sexy as heck in a very sweet way, and a fun romp (in more ways than one, especially for Lana!) There isn't really a ton of worldbuilding (I felt like I'd have liked to learn more about the world's history, and that of the fairies, for exampel), and the solution comes as something like a deus ex machina. But the characters are fun to spend time with, the writing is enjoyable, the action is spiced with comedy, the final resolution quite appropriate and sweet. A fun diversion indeed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Review: The Long Game, by K. J. Parker

Review: The Long Game, by K. J. Parker

by Rich Horton

I'm planning to post occasional reviews of short fiction here, given that I'm not writing for Locus any more. (Mostly -- I do plan to contribute the occasional piece there.) Here's my first in that series.

I'm a big fan of "K. J. Parker"'s stories and novels, mostly set in his somewhat vaguely described quasi-Romanish, Byzantinish, fantasy milieu. ("Parker", of course, is a pseudonym for Tom Holt.) In his shorter works Parker tends to use this setting to explore fairly philosophical questions, often turning on the nature of magic (though with the magical system constructed, seems to me, to allow him to explore more broadly applicable questions.) By contrast, Parker's novels, though not without philosophical conundrums to ponder, often spend more time explicating questions of logistics, engineering, politics, or the relationships between men and women. The Long Game, a 2022 novella, available in a very nice (if expensive!) edition from Subterranean Press, is a great example of his shorter works.

The narrator is a magical adept, trained at the Studium. However, his abilities in the field mean that instead of the cushy desk job, with prospects for advancement, that he coveted, he is doomed to a life as a field agent, traveling constantly, mainly sort of "exorcising" demons from people. Demons, we learn, are entities devoted to what the narrator is convinced is "Evil", and his job is to oppose them, for the sake of "Good". This being a K. J. Parker novel, it's clear that "Good", at last, however good it may be at some level, is represented largely by incompetent schemers, who, if they are trying to improve the world, are making rather a hash of it.

He's in the remote town of Sabades Amar when he notices a woman reading a book upside down. And, somehow, she seems to be an adept of some sort -- but everyone knows women can't be adepts! He challenges her, and learns that she is from Idalia, a nearly legendary distant place. He also learns that her powers are at least his equal, and possibly superior to his. But what is she after?

Then a local prior turns up murdered, and the woman is the obvious suspect. But things don't add up. And the narrator reflects on  a long-running adversary of his -- a demon -- who by know he considers almost a friend. This demon keeps showing up -- and we learn more and more about the demon ... and more and more about the narrator's entanglement with it (or him, as the narrator insists on perceiving it.) Of course, it's soon clear that the demon is involved with the murder of the prior -- and also that the Idalian woman has an assignment of her own, which might have pretty terrible implications.

Parker is really, in the end, concerned, as I hinted, with philosophical issues, and with the "long game" implied by the title. The story is appropriately twisty; and, because Parker is Parker, able to make, as they say, a shopping list intriguing reading, the book is compulsively fun and readable. All that said, I ended up thinking that the philosophical speculations -- which are pretty worthwhile -- really could have been handled in a quarter the space. But I didn't mind -- the novella is fun reading throughout. It doesn't rank at the top of Parker's ouevre at all -- not even close -- but I was glad to read it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: The Fabulous Clipjoint, by Fredric Brown

Old Bestseller Review: The Fabulous Clipjoint, by Fredric Brown

by Rich Horton

Here's another review of a postwar crime novel, in this case a very pure example of "noir" fiction (though am I supposed to use noir in talking about books rather than film?) The Fabulous Clipjoint was first published as "Dead Man's Indemnity" in Mystery Book Magazine in 1946, the same year as my previous crime novel, Crows Don't Count, by "A. A. Fair". The book version, expanded and with an infinitely superior (and less spoilery) title, came out from E. P. Dutton in 1947. It won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1948. My copy is the second printing of the Bantam paperback, from 1953. (The first printing was in 1948.) The inside copy credits the cover to Ed Grant, but I think that's for the first paperback printing (reproduced below.) The signature on this one looks different -- I'm not sure who did the cover. 

Given that the hardcover had two printings, and there was a Unicorn Mystery Book Club edition, and the paperback got a reprint as well, the novel must have sold acceptably, though it wasn't a true bestseller. 

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) has long been well known to me as a Science Fiction writer -- his story "Arena" (possibly the source material for the Star Trek episode of the same name) appeared in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he wrote many other fine short stories, including a great many short-shorts; and also several fine SF novels (The Lights in the Sky are Stars, What Mad Universe?, Martians Go Home.) But he wrote in many genres, and arguably he was at his best writing crime fiction -- or, so I have been told. I decided I'd read one of his mystery novels, and started with The Fabulous Clipjoint, which was, as noted, his first. (Indeed, the two detective characters, Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose, appeared in several further novels.) 

Ed Hunter is 18 years old, having just started working at the printer's where his father works in Chicago. His mother is long dead, and his father has remarried, and he has a stepsister, Gardie, who is 14 but trying to act 18 or more. He knows his father isn't happy, his stepmother always on his father's case. And this morning his father hasn't come home, after his usual routine of having a beer or two or three at several bars. And then the police come -- his father has been found murdered in an alley. 

Ed's first move is to visit his uncle Ambrose, a carnie, up in Wisconsin. And, perhaps to Ed's surprise, Ambrose comes with him back to Chicago; and before long he's convinced Ed they need to try to find his father's killer. After all, the police are sympathetic but have no real leads -- people are killed for their wallets every night in Chicago, it seems. Ambrose has hidden depths -- it turns out he was once a private investigator. And he has stories about Ed's father, Wally, and their youthful escapades in places like Mexico, including romantic stuff like a duel and an affair with a married woman. 

The novel, then, follows the course of their amateurish investigation. Along the way we learn more about Wally's desperation, his unhappy second marriage, the reason he moved from Gary, Indiana to Chicago. There are hints of a past involvement with gangsters. Ambrose teaches Ed how to act as they interrogate Wally's last contacts, such as a shady bartender, and his best friend at the printer's, etc. Meanwhile Gardie comes on to Ed; the police begin to show interest in Ed's stepmother as a suspect, and a gangster and his hired heavies show up. And, tracking one lead, a mysterious phone number, Ed comes into contact with a beautiful older woman ...

This is all pure noir -- if noir is the right word for a novel, not a film. The depiction of Chicago's meaner streets is excellent. The characters of Ed and Ambrose are well-portrayed, if the women -- the grasping stepmother, the sluttish stepsister, the "heart of silver (not quite gold)" gun moll -- are perhaps a tad clichéd. The mystery is appropriately twisty, though it turns to an extent on a slightly improbable psychological quirk. But on the whole it convinces. And the final chapter, where at last we learn the meaning of the title, is simply beautiful. This is a wonderful novel -- post war noirish crime fiction at its peak. 

Here's the cover of the first paperback edition, by Ed Grant:

Monday, November 28, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Crows Can't Count, by "A. A. Fair" (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Old Bestseller Review: Crows Can't Count, by "A. A. Fair" (Erle Stanley Gardner)

by Rich Horton

When I was a teenager I came across a couple of paperbacks of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books and tried them -- they didn't really interest me much. And a while back I read a science fiction story by him which was simply dreadful. But I knew of his other major series -- the Cool and Lam stories, written under the name "A. A. Fair", featuring an atypical pair of detectives -- the 60ish widow Bertha Cool and her employee, later partner, Donald Lam, a smallish man in his 30s. These books seemed interesting.

Gardner (1889-1970) was trained as a lawyer and practiced for a while, mainly representing poorer people and immigrants. Later he founded the Court of Last Resort, sort of a prototype for later organizations such as the Innocence Project -- aimed at getting fair treatment for people convicted without proper represenation. He turned to writing in the '20s and after his first Perry Mason books was published he quit practicing law, but his experience, obviously, was central to his writing.

Recently I've bought a few of the Cool and Lam books -- some in the Hard Case Crime reprint series at Worldcon, others at an estate sale recently. I decided to try one of the earlier books in the series, Crows Can't Count, from 1946. (The first book appeared in 1939 and he ended up publishing 30 Cool and Lam novels, writing them until the end of his life.) My copy is a 1960 Dell reprint with a beautiful cover by Bob McGinnis, one of the great illustrators of paperbacks.

The book opens with the agency being hired by one Harry Sharples, who wants them to find out what happened to an emerald necklace that ended up in the possession of a local dealer. It seems Sharples and a certain Robert Cameron are co-trustees for the heirs of Cora Hendricks, who had owned a gold mine in Colombia. The heirs, both in their 20s, are Shirley Bruce and Robert Hockley. Hockley is apparently a gambler, and to keep him under control the trustees have limited their disbursements to both heirs. Very quickly Lam and Sharples visit Cameron -- only to find that he's been murdered. And the there is a necklace -- sans emeralds -- on his table. And his pet crow is missing. 

Things get complicated quickly. Shirley Bruce is visited, and she immediately puts the moves on Lam -- who knows by then that Sharples is a bit more attracted to her than appropriate for his position as a 50ish man with a quasi-fatherly relationship. Another young woman is put forward as owner of the necklace. It's made clear that Colombia controls much of the world's emerald supply, and strictly limits exports. A former servant of Cora Hendricks, Juanita Grafton, and her artist daughter Dona are involved as well - and Dona is caring for the crow. Harry Sharples wants Donald Lam to act as his bodyguard, and Lam refuses, infuriating the avaricious Bertha Cool. Pretty much everyone heads for Colombia to see what's up at the mine -- and the Colombian authorities take an interest ...

There are some nice bits here. Gardner's very sympathetic portrayal of Colombia and its people is interesting, and Dona Grafton, the young artist, is a nice character. Donald Lam, the narrator, comes off well enough. Bertha Cool struck me as a somewhat sexist caricature, alas. The other characters barely come into real focus. The mystery is highly complicated -- perhaps too much so -- and is revealed too much by telling and not really showing. There is a worthwhile twist that's kind of fumbled. The solution makes reasonable sense but seems overcomplicated.

Which all means, I guess, that I wasn't wholly thrilled with the book. I'll read some more Cool and Lam books, but this one doesn't really work, on the whole. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Convention Report: World Fantasy 2022

Convention Report: World Fantasy 2022

by Rich Horton

At last I made it to another World Fantasy Convention. The last one I attended was in San Antonio in 2017, and I loved that. World Fantasy is a somewhat more writer-oriented, more professional-oriented, convention than, say, Worldcon. Both orientations are wonderful, but the World Fantasy slant is something I do love. Anyway, for one reason and another I missed 2018 and 2019. And of course 2020 was virtual-only -- I did do a panel for that con, but virtual just isn't the same. I had tickets and a hotel and all for 2021 in Montreal -- and I had to cancel for COVID-related reasons. So finally this year I made it back! This time was in New Orleans -- next year will be in Kansas City, practically home for me! -- I'll be there for sure, unless some other disaster intervenes.

Mary Ann made the trip with me. We drove down on Thursday, stopping in Memphis for lunch at Dyer's, a legendary hamburger joint (the grease they use is supposedly over 100 years old) -- I have to say it was fine -- but not awesome. Then we continued to Laurel, MS, where the home renovation show Hometown is set. We stayed the night, and visited their downtown the next morning. The shops run by the stars of Hometown were cute enough, but rather ridiculously overpriced. Then we headed into New Orleans, getting to the hotel at 12:30 or so.

(Mary Ann made a musical record of our trip -- I'll post it, with links to the songs, at the end of this post.)

I have to say it was a delight walking through the hotel on the way to the elevators up to our room, with the porter taking our bags, and old friends calling my name -- I stopped to say hi several times, no doubt to the frustration of Mary Ann and the porter. I got to meet several of Fran Wilde's writing students, for one thing. It is just so nice to be at live conventions again (this wasn't my first -- I was at Boskone in February and at Worldcon, but still!)

The hotel is kind of nice, particularly the interior architecture -- some 27 floors, in a sort of wedge shape, with dizzying empty space up to the top. That said, as with pretty much every hotel we've stayed in recently, the furniture is terribly uncomfortable.

We had a quick lunch in the hotel restaurant -- which was just fine if of course overpriced -- and Ron Drummond came coursing by and recognized me by my beard. We had a good talk and agreed to meet later. And, indeed, we went to dinner that night, at Reginelli's Pizzeria. Ron, of course, discussed the limited edition of John Crowley's great novel Little, Big, which Ron (along with John Berry) has been working on for some 15 years, and it is finally coming out. (My copy will arrive in a few weeks, I'm sure.) Ron had the first sample of the book to show off -- it's a beautiful creature indeed.

Before dinner I made a quick dash through the dealers' room, and ran into Arin Komins and Rich Warren, and had the first of several conversations with them. (I also saw them, and had dinner with them, at Windycon the following week.) Then I was looking in at a panel but instead ran into Jim Cambias and Gordon van Gelder, and soon we were joined by Jo Walton, and we spent the next hour talking about -- about cozy catastrophes and many other things. And I spent the evening after dinner at the bar, meeting people and talking -- that was my MO for the whole convention. Panels are great, sure, and readings, and the Dealers' Room -- but the best part of a convention is hanging around the bar and having conversations. 

After dinner there was the mass signing. I had signed up for a spot this time, but once again I forgot to bring my books. I'll get the hang of it someday! I was sitting next to Ron, and took the opportunity to look through Little, Big. Bruce McAllister was there too, and I finally not to meet him though we didn't get to talk much. I signed one or two of my books that other people had brought, but mostly wandered through the room trying to meet other authors I hadn't met yet, and to catch up with some of my long time friends. Among the many people I ran into were Sharon Shinn, Peter Halasz, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Claire Cooney and Carlos Hernandez, Ellen Klages, Kathleen Jennings, Fran Wilde (who, happily, I bumped into numerous times over the weekend), Laura Anne Gilman, Emily C. Skaftun, Marie Brennan, and E. C. Ambrose. They had a nice spread too -- both Friday and Saturday night! Of course, being in New Orleans helps a lot! Then to the bar, and more conversations.

Saturday I grabbed breakfast at a place called District, apparently a chain of some sort, in close walking distance from the hotel. It was OK, not great. My only panel was at 3, though there was one at 2 I also wanted to see. So I spent a good while in the Dealers' Room. It was fairly small, but the sellers who were there had interesting stuff. I saw Sally Kobee of course, and Jacob Weisman, Patrick Swenson, and James Van Pelt, and Allen Kaster and his daughter. And I also met a dealer named Donna Rankin, who had some interesting stuff but probably a lot more at her place in South Carolina. As we make it to South Carolina every so often (though it's been a while), there's a chance I'll be able to visit her store some time. Susan Forest was there too, helping to sell her daughter's novel. Naturally I bought some books. The convention also gave us quite a nice book bag (books included).

The first panel I went to was on the place of essays in science fiction. The panelists were Nisi Shawl, Farah Mendlesohn, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Eileen Gunn, and Farah's husband Edward James. They discussed the form of the essay, several famous and influential essays, etc. etc. -- all interesting and worthwhile stuff (and as I've been known to write the occasional essay, motivating to me!) This was my first chance to meet Farah and Edward in person -- we've been FB friends for a long time. Edward and I had a nice discussion, particularly on Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories", which I read for the first time (!) a few months ago, and was very impressed by.

The only panel I was actually on was on the Author/Editor Relationship. I moderated, as Jeffrey Ford and Ellen Datlow talked about their editing process; and Donna Glee Williams and Jo Fletcher talked about theirs. I think it went very well. Lots of good talk about the mechanics, the effects of COVID (and technology in general), levels of editing (structural, prose, line, copy), as well as issues with things like what happens when an editor leaves a company (sometimes not by their choice) and the author has to work with a new person. And some gossip (no names though.)

For dinner this time we decided I'd pick up takeout from a place called Daisy Mae's Southern Fried Chicken. Again, it was good, though there was almost a fight between two people waiting for takeout. And I ran into Jo Fletcher again, eating with a couple of her friends, and Sharon Shinn with Ginjer Buchanan. We got to chat for a bit while I waited for my food. Again, good stuff, probably would have been better eaten in the restaurant.

There was an art exhibit/auction that night. The art show, alas, was a bit thin this year, though there were some excellent artists, including one of my favorites (a favorite writer too), Kathleen Jennings. A good spread as well, again. At the bar afterward we were treated to the Alabama/LSU football game, which was extremely exciting, and naturally the locals were thrilled when LSU pulled off a miraculous finish to win the game. The final World Series game was on, too -- a very good result for Allen Kaster, who is from Houston. And, of course, long conversations with lots of people -- I met Marc Laidlaw in person at last, and talked to Scott Andrews, Jake Wyckoff, Brandon McNulty, Tod McCoy, Christopher Cevasco and others. (And disappointment as I learned that, all too typically, the hotel bar couldn't make an Aviation, though at least the bartender knew what I was talking about!)

Sunday was a light day at the convention, especially as we weren't going to the award banquet. I sat in on the WFC Board meeting for a bit -- I find this stuff quite interesting, perhaps surprisingly. Visitors, of course, were kicked out when they got to sensitive subjects.

Mary Ann and I had decided to use Sunday afternoon to visit the French Quarter. We took the streetcar down there -- it's very easy and convenient. We were going to get lunch and I was determined to get a muffeletta, which is one of my favorite sandwiches. I wanted an authentic muffuletta from New Orleans -- which I got at Frank's, which advertised the "original muffuletta". Alas, it might be the original, and it was fine, but you can get one just as good at, for example, C. J. Mugg's in my town of Webster Groves. We should have eaten at the French Market Restaurant instead! We also, of course, went to Cafe du Monde to try beignets, and, hey, they were actually very good. (The line was long but went quickly.)

I had more conversations that night, of course -- finally running into Sarah Pinsker, and meeting A. T. Greenblatt -- we had a real good talk, talking engineering as much as writing. There was also an interesting writer from, I think, Pakistan, an historian who is working on an epic novel based on the history of Afghanistan. Alas, between the noise at the bar and my aging ears (which have a hard time with background noise these days) I didn't catch his name!

Monday was of course farewells, and another dealers' room sweep. I'll go ahead and namecheck everyone else I remember talking to, though I'm sure I've forgotten some:

Christopher Rowe, Gwenda Bond, Usman T. Malik, Darrell Schweitzer, Kelly Robson (who I saw again the next weekend at Windycon!), Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Robert V. S. Redick, Shawna McCarthy, C. C. Finlay, Darryl Gregory, Gary K. Wolfe, Dale Hanes, David Boop, Gordon Van Gelder, Brandon Ketchum, Walter Jon Williams, and Arley Sorg.

Then it was time to leave. We had decided to make the trip a circle, going up more to the west on the
way home. I wanted to go over "the longest bridge over Ponchartrain" as a great Lucinda Williams song has it, so we went over the causeway, and cut over to Baton Rouge. We drove through LSU's campus, just because, though they kicked us out of part of it because they want it to be a walking campus. We got lunch at a neat barbeque place called City Pork. We were aiming to get to El Dorado, AR, a small town not too far over the border. The route from El Dorado up to Branson, MO, was advertised as the prettiest drive in Arkansas. The next morning we wandered around El Dorado's downtown, which is quite cute, though marred by the statue of the traitor in the center of it. We had breakfast at a neat place in a converted train car. 

Then it was on to Branson. The drive, it turned out, was a bit of a disappointment. We stopped in Arkadelphia and went through -- or at least near -- a couple more campuses: Henderson State, and Ouachita Baptist. Then finally up through the mountains -- well, hills -- to Branson. We've been to Branson a number of times, but many years ago. We didn't see all that much of it, though -- the lights downtown were nice, though kind of early! The goal was to eat at one of Guy Fieri's restaurants. It was -- fine -- I mean, really, I had a good hamburger, good comfort food. A bit expensive.

Finally the next morning we headed home, the familiar ride up I-44. We stopped in Rolla at their excellent pie place, A Slice of Pie (in a new more convenient location.) But it was time to be home!

Here's Mary Ann's notes and the key to the songs we played on the way there and back:

"Tear Stained Eye" by Son Volt was picked because of these lyrics,"Sainte Genevieve can hold back the water But saints don't bother with a tear stained eye." Ste. Genevieve is a town just south of St. Louis on I-55. 

"Everyday is a Winding Road" by Sheryl Crow. We passed an exit for Kennett, MO, where Crow is from. 

"Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn. Pretty obvious. We did walk on Beale Street and ate at Dyer’s Burgers which uses grease from 100 years ago. Something like that. 

"Jackson" by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Once again, pretty obvious.  

"My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen.  This is for our overnight stay in Laurel, MS. That is the town that the HGTV show, Hometown, is set in. I wanted to visit this town since I watch the show.  

"The Battle of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton.  Our destination for World Fantasy. There are several songs we could have used for NO, but this one has a family connection.  (Sort of. Ha!)

"Louisiana Rain" by Tom Petty. Saturday in New Orleans was a very rainy day. We could have used this on Monday when we went to Baton Rouge, as well. 

"House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals. We went down to the French Quarter and Rich had a muffaletta and we had beignets at Café Du Monde. 

"Crescent City" by Lucinda Williams. We were crossing the Lake Pontchartrain bridge so the lyrics, "And the longest bridge I've ever crossed over Pontchartrain", fit perfectly. 

"Baton Rouge" by Magnolia Summer (a St. Louis band.) We did drive through Baton Rouge, so this was a good choice. 

"Natchez Trace" by Pavlov’s Dog.  We were passing through Natchez, Mississippi on the way home.  So pretty obvious.  This is a pretty obscure song, I admit. 

"Monroe, Louisiana" by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. We had to google songs about Monroe, LA. This one came up. I admit I have never heard it before. 

"El Dorado" by Elton John.  This is a song from The Road to El Dorado.  We had to google songs about El Dorado.  We stayed the night in El Dorado, AR. 

"What I Really Mean", by Robert Earl Keen. It's a musician "touring" song and namechecks a number of places we came close to (and some we got nowhere near!) (Plus Rich likes it a lot.)

"Ballad of Jed Clampett" by Flatt and Scruggs.  Because everyone knows the Clampetts came from Silver Dollar City in Branson.  We ate at a Guy Fieri restaurant and spent the night.  

"Walkin’ Daddy" by Greg Brown.  Driving by Jack’s Fork river so these lyrics: "I'm walkin' daddy, where the Jack's Fork river bends/ Down in Missouri, where the Jack's Fork river bends", worked perfectly. 

"Meet Me in St. Louis" by Judy Garland.  We made it home.  

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Review: Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty by Rich Horton

Review: Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty

by Rich Horton

Station Eternity is Mur Lafferty's third novel (not counting media tie-ins) -- her first, Playing for Keeps, dates to 2007, but it was her second, Six Wakes (2017) that gained a lot of notice, including Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick shortlisting. (Lafferty has also been editor or co-editor of the major SF fiction podcast Escape Pod for most of its existence.) Six Wakes was an unusual murder mystery set on a spaceship ... and Station Eternity is an unusual murder mystery set on an alien sentient space station. It is subtitled The Midsolar Murders, with the implication that it may be the first of a series -- and, indeed, the ending leaves room for more books with some of the same characters, especially the main "detective" character, Mallory Viridian. (I emphasize, though, that the story this book tells is complete -- the series would be in the form of many mystery series, including a pseudonymous series mentioned in this book -- written by Mallory herself!)

The novel opens establishing that Mallory Viridian, a 30ish young woman, has been, Murder She Wrote-like, present at numerous murders, and that she has been able to solve many of these. This hasn't done her much good -- her dating life is pretty much shot, and she hasn't been allowed to make a profession of her detective ability, as her close connection to various murders makes her an object of suspicion. In despair at the danger she seems to pose to anyone close to her, she decides to apply for a sort of asylum on Station Eternity, a space station that is home to several alien races, and which has in recent years contacted Earth -- but so far has only invited three humans to live there: the official ambassador, linguist Adrian Casserly-Berry; Mallory herself; and Xan Morgan, who is coincidentally (or is it coincidence?) an old college friend of Mallory, as well as a soldier who had been working on a classified project involving the aliens before he was mysteriously spirited off the station.

The primary action of the story is driven by the impending arrival of the first large group of humans at Station Eternity -- a mix of a couple dozen bigwigs, some military, and lottery winners. Xan and Mallory and Adrian are each incensed by this development, for different reasons: Xan convinced he faces a court-martial or worse; Mallory simply desiring to maintain her distance from the humans she feels she endangers; and Adrian believing he will be replaced as ambassador. But before any of their concerns are addressed, there is a worse crisis at hand: the space station, a sentient being, has gone crazy, perhaps because its symbiote, an unpleasant alien who serves as sort of an interface between the station and its inhabitants, has been killed. As a result, the shuttle carrying the human visitors is destroyed, with more than half of the visitors killed. Xan and Mallory are charged with rescuing the survivors; while Adrian ends up as a potential new symbiote for the station.

Whoa! Feels like time for a breath -- there's so much going on. What seemed at first a somewhat comic SF take on the Murder She Wrote trope of an obvious serial killer heroine "solving" the unusual number of murders in her neighborhood (and apparently something of this nature is going on in the British show The Midsomer Murders, as signaled by the Midsolar Murders label for Lafferty's impending series) has become rather darker and more urgent. Clearly, human/alien relations are focal point here; particularly the difference between humans, who do not form symbiotic relationships with other species, and the alien species, all of who do form such relationships. In addition, everyone on the station, most certainly including Mallory and Xan, is in mortal danger. And -- what's up with all these sudden human visitors? The novel digresses here to fill in the back stories of most of the humans (and a couple of aliens as well.) Mallory's life is detailed, and Xan's including his military background, which involves a horrible incident -- in which a number of soldiers died, and Xan and his friend Calliope Oh were implicated for negligence or worse. And Calliope is one of the survivors of the shuttle accident -- as well as Xan's brother Phineas, a rap star; as well as Mallory's unpleasant Aunt Kathy; and a certain Mrs. Brown and her violinist granddaughter -- both of who have killed people in self-defense (though Mrs. Brown went to jail, partly because Mallory investigated one of her killings ...) Add an obsessive fan of Mallory's books ... It becomes quite clear that the events that have brought this particular group of humans to Station Eternity are not a coincidence. Beyond that, Mallory's best alien friends, the rocklike Gneiss, turn out to be significant too -- for one thing, they are responsible for Xan's arrival at Station Eternity; for another thing, one of them is a Princess, and another is ready to use a very dark Gneiss secret ...

Gasp! And I've left a lot out. Suffice it to say that this book is stuffed full of incident, intrigue, interesting aliens, and, well, improbability. In the end, the mysteries are resolved (the chief villain, it should be said, is a bit obvious) and some of the really weird happenings, such as Mallory's magnetism for murder, are explained in a reasonably plausible fashion. The nature of the aliens, of human relations to them, and the future resolution to all these issues is well enough arranged -- and, yes, future books in the series seem to be coming.

That said, I did have some issues, primarily with the sheer absurdity of some of the science, and the implausibility of some of the events and motivations. In the end, I'm willing to give much of the scientific implausibility a bit of a pass on the grounds that perhaps for a certain sort of SF -- indeed, I was reminded of James Alan Gardner's similarly entertaining and difficult to believe League of Peoples novels -- it's OK to let go of logic to allow the telling of a fun story and the description of involving aliens. And, yes, Mallory's improbable back story gets something of an explanation. But things like the movie Phineas was making that he had to abandon for family issues becoming an Oscar winner stretched my credibility far enough it snapped ... and that was a needless elaboration. Beyond that, as with so many novels these days, I thought some judicious cutting was in order. The digressions detailing the back story of all the major characters tried my patience a bit, though Lafferty's auctorial voice has enough verve that my interest was held -- which isn't to deny that less might have been more. 

Anyway, I found this book a good deal of fun, if not wholly successful. It's got plenty of SFnal brio, at times to a fault maybe. The mystery is set up intriguingly, if the resolution is just a tad flat. But I'm happy I read it, and I'll be there for Midsolar Murders 2.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

by Rich Horton

Ray Nayler burst upon the SF scene with a remarkable and beautiful story called "Mutability", in the June 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. (I reprinted this story in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2016 Edition.) (He had published a good deal of poetry, crime fiction, and literary fiction in the couple of decades before that, mind you.) In the several years since then he has continued to publish striking SF, wildly imaginative, scientifically convincing, and always with powerful characters at the heart. But only now has he published his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea. And it must be said, it fully realizes the promise of his shorter works.

The Mountain in the Sea is, at first glance, about intelligent octopuses, and about attempts to communicate with them. But more deeply, it is about intelligence and communication in general. To this end, it beautifully interleaves characters, speculation, and plot threads concerning machine intelligence of different kinds, translation (between human languages), hacking, evolution of intelligence, remote control of devices such as drones, non-neurotypical people, man-machine symbiosis, memory aids, etc.

The novel features three separate narrative threads. The main one follows Ha Nguyen, who is hired by a branch of a company called DIANIMA to join a research effort on an island called Con Dao, in an ocean preserve off Vietnam (or more precisely, the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Zone.) She is the writer of a book called How Oceans Think, and her research will involve attempting to communicate with octopuses. The preserve is intended to protect the local sea life from the effects of overfishing and other effects of human impingement; though we know already (and Ha certainly knows) that those protection efforts have not been very successful. But there are stories of mysterious deaths of humans, especially divers -- and octopuses are believe by some to be involved.

Another thread concerns Rustem, a genius hacker (for lack of a better word) based in places in the former Soviet Union. His specialty is breaking into AI systems, for mysterious backers, often, it seems, with the aim of causing the AIs (which control things like fishing and cargo ships) to act contrary to their owners' wishes -- often with fatal results.

And the third thread follows Eiko, a young Japanese man who has been kidnapped by slavers, and is imprisoned on a factory fishing ship controlled by an AI. Eiko and his fellow slaves are in essence replacing AIs who had previous operated the fishing amd fish preparation equipment -- human slaves, it seems, are cheaper than AIs. 

There are other people -- or other beings -- as well. Ha works with Evrim, an intelligent and conscious (or so they think) android, created by DIANIMA and its leader, Arnkatia Minervudóttir-Chan, in order to demonstrate that they can "build minds". But Evrim so frightened the establishment that intelligent androids have been outlawed -- and he can stay only in a DIANIMA-owned enclave such as the Con Dao preserve. Ha also talks regularly with her friend Kamran, a researcher at a laboratory somwhere unspecified. Rustem starts dating a young woman named Aynur -- partly perhaps to provide the reader someonw for Rustem to explain his ideas, but also to introduce her point-five -- an AI companion, not fully conscious but often seeming so. Eiko makes friends with other slaves, and they being to plot a potential escape. 

How to these intertwine? The revelation comes slowly, but it's easy to guess things like what AI Rustem is now attempting to hack into; or where Eiko's ship is heading and how the slaves' interactions with the ship's AI will work out. And Ha and Evrim -- along with their security professional Altansetseg, a Mongolian war veteran and drone controller -- are making hesitant progress in communicating with the local octopuses. But time is limited -- Dr. Minervudóttir-Chan is losing control of DIANIMA, Ha and Evrim's autonomy is in question, Eiko is a wild card, and the octopuses themselves are seriously threatened by the human depredations of the sea.

But I've hardly described anything of the wonders of the novel. The layers of speculation about intelligence are remarkable -- the novel interrogates intelligence as manifested by humans, neurodivergent humans, octopuses, AIs, point-fives, semi-autonomous drones, AI monks of apparently limited intelligence ... not to mention intelligence augmentations such as memory palaces, translation algorithms, drone-human links, schools, even books. It examines how an intelligence is shaped by its physical housing, by its environment, by its culture, by its language and its language's expression in writing or other means of recording or transmission. And it's not just about intelligence -- it's fiercely engaged with environmental activism, with climate change and other human-caused environmental harm. And its fiercely engaged with humans harming humans, with slavery, with corporate malfeasance, with moral failure. I've discussed before the idea of "through-composed" SF -- SF that fully considers the implications of its extrapolations and speculations. This is a fully through-composed novel! And it's a novel that takes its speculation seriously in the sense of wondering about -- or advocating for -- ways to work for a more just future (and not just for humans.)

Highly recommended. This is science fiction doing everything science fiction can do -- speculating excitingly about scientific ideas, extrapolating a convincing future, and telling an exciting story. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson

by Rich Horton

I rarely review the same author twice in a row, but after I published my review of D. E. Stevenson's Rochester's Wife, David Pringle told me that she had written an SF novel. This is The Empty World, published in the UK in 1936. (The US edition from 1939 was retitled A World in Spell.) I went looking for a copy, and learned quickly that it's not easy to find and quite expensive. There were a couple of reprints, large size paperback, in 2001 and 2009, but they can't have had large print runs (perhaps they were even POD) and they run between $30 and $100. The American edition can be had for $120 and up, and true UK first editions start at about $200. All too rich for me! But there is a Kindle edition for a very reasonable price, and I figured I'd read that instead.

I noted in my review of Rochester's Wife that while it was not a wholly successful book it was still an engaging read -- and I noted also that Stevenson's fans were unanimous in suggesting that she wrote many other better books. The Empty World was not mentioned, and I suspect it's been less widely read, and that it really was never reprinted until the editions I mentioned from this century, so it was probably hard to find. I imagine it may not have been a success on first appearance, and perhaps Stevenson herself was not satisfied with it. And, indeed, it too is not really a particularly good book -- yet it is also an engaging read. Stevenson simply had that storyteller's touch. 

The story opens with Jane Forrest, a successful writer of historical novels, about 30 years old, boarding an aeroplane to return to London after a lecture tour of the US. The year is 1973. The plane carries 13 (!) passengers, with 9 crewmembers. Jane is accompanied by her assistant Maisie. Other passengers include Sir Richard Barton, the actress Iris Bright and her assistant Alice, Iris's manager Mr. Haviland, a couple of elderly sisters, and a few more; and the key crew members are the pilots David Fenemore and Thomas Day. There's probably not much point speculating on the economics of that sort of air travel; or on the (skimpy) details of the future of 1973. (By coincidence, 1973 was the year D. E. Stevenson would die.)

As the plane is over the Atlantic, there is a terrific storm, and Fenemore manages to bring the plane to a great altitude to evade it. Sir Richard has made friends with Jane, and he tells her of the predictions of the crackpot scientist Dr. Boddington that a comet was passing by the Earth and its electrical interaction with the atmosphere would result in the death of all animal life. While he's sure Boddington's predictions are crazy, the reader is not surprised when the crew reports that they can get no response from calls for help on the radio, and the reader is also not surprised when they land near Glasgow and find everything eerily empty -- no people, no birds, no animals, not even any insects. Fortunately tinned food has survived! At first the plan is to stick together, but it's soon clear that a good portion of the survivors are terrible people -- all these folks are men, and they soon reveal that they have plans for the few young women among the survivors (Jane, Maise, Iris, and Alice.) 

Sir Richard proposes to take a few people to his estate to establish some minimal society, but the thuggish elements resist that, wanting their "fair share" of the women. David Fenemore, his copilot, and Alice take an aeroplane and head for the continent to look for survivors. But Jane is kidnapped while the others escape to Sir Richard's place. Jane bravely manages to play the kidnappers against each other -- and when David Fenemore returns and it's clear the bad guys will kill him, Jane pretends to play along to give David a chance to escape. Then she bravely manages her own escape ...

This sets up the first conflict -- both the broad one, of Sir Richard managing to establish his tiny society while resisting the violence of the thuggish element; and the narrow one, of Jane and David overcoming David's disgust at his feeling that Jane had been dishonorable in arranging for him to get away while she was in the hands of the bad guys. But that is (mostly) resolved fairly quickly (and conveniently, at times) and soon the people at Sir Richard's estate are growing crops (without insects etc? Don't ask such unfair questions!) and beginning to pair off. Still, less than a dozen people are hardly enough to restore human civilization (especially after the tinned food runs out!) So there is a final episode -- a realization that in fact one other group survived, under the direction of Dr. Boddington. Alas, when they discover the Boddington enclave, they learn quickly that he is setting up a rather horrific technocratic/eugenic society ...

I've been a bit dismissive of the silliness of the science in this story -- and seriously, it's dreadful. The effect of the comet on the Earth is ridiculous. It's slightly reminiscent of W. E. B. DuBois' "The Comet", which is an outstanding short story that uses fairly silly science involving a comet encounter to establish an emptied out city with just two survivors. Likewise Stevenson uses silly silence involving a comet encounter to establish an empty world with just a hundred or so survivors. I'd say it's easier to get away with this at 5000 words than 60,000 or so -- still, let's allow Stevenson that one device. A further issue is the follow on effects of the death of all animal life from insects on up -- this would be far more devastating than Stevenson allows. Likewise Stevenson's paper thin extrapolation of the nature of life in 1973 is annoying. In then end, though -- these issues distract any SF reader, but aren't necessarily fatal to the actual story Stevenson is telling.

Here she fares somewhat better. Part of it is her storytelling facility, that I've mentioned before. She does make the reader want to keep reading. And there are some exciting episodes -- Jane's escape is quite well done, for instance. The introduction of Dr. Boddington's creepy attempt at a scientific utopia is pretty interesting. For all that, the novel still doesn't really work. The various romances are thin; and even the primary one, Jane's with David Fenemore, complicated by David's anger at her and by Jane's interest in the older Sir Richard, doesn't really strike home well enough. But more than that the issue is the villains. I'm coming to the conclusion that perhaps Stevenson just doesn't do villains well. The group of thuggish bad guys in the initial airplane are quite crudely depicted, and there is an overlay of classist prejudice to all that. Dr. Boddington, also, is a caricature mad scientist. Set against that, she does a fairly good job describing the society Boddington attempts to establish; and its faults. (Though there is just a hint that maybe she thinks eugenics "done right" could work, though there's an implied acknowledgement that it won't ever be done right.) 

So -- two D. E. Stevenson novels, and two flops! What to do? Don't worry -- I'm reasonably convinced that I just picked the wrong two to read first. Rochester's Wife is a misstep -- every prolific writer has some of those, and I think in The Empty World she was trying something different, something not in her wheelhouse. And even in these books, I can see that she truly can tell a story, and though I didn't think either one quite worked, I enjoyed reading them. I have a couple more Stevenson novels on hand, including the highly praised Miss Buncle's Book, and I'll get to them sometime! 

Monday, October 24, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Rochester's Wife, by D. E. Stevenson

Rochester's Wife, by D. E. Stevenson

a review by Rich Horton

Dorothy Emily Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1892. She was first cousin once removed to Robert Louis Stevenson, so she came by her writing chops (if you want to assume there's a genetic component!) honestly. That said, her parents seem to have disapproved of her interest in writing, and they would not let her attend college. She married James Reid Peploe, an officer in the British Army, in 1916. She began publishing with a book of poems in 1915, and her first novel was serialized in 1923. She hit her stride in the 1930s, especially with the very popular Mrs. Tim books (about a British Army wife -- based of course on her own life) and the likewise popular Miss Buncle books. She was very popular, publishing in the end some 40 novels. She died in 1973. In the past decade plus many of her books have returned to print -- some from Persephone Books, and many more from one of my favorite imprints, the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Books, curated by Scott Thompson of the excellent Furrowed Middlebrow blog, which focuses on British women writers of the early to middle 20th Century. 

I have over the past couple of years found about four of her books used, and have intended to read them for a while, prompted by Scott's enthusiasm, and likewise by recommendations from Jo Walton. I finally grabbed the latest book of hers I found (at an estate sale a week or so back) -- Rochester's Wife. This was published in 1940, but my edition is an Ace reprint from about 1980 (based on the price ($1.95) and on the Ursula Le Guin editions advertised in the back of the book!) The cover to this Ace reprint is execrable, as you can see -- it is true that there is scend of a game of tennis in the book, but there is no way that those people resemble this novel's characters in the least. 

As with many of Stevenson's books this can be called a "light romance". The main characters are Kit Stone, who is in his late 20s, and was trained as a doctor with the goal of taking over his father's practice. But his father died early, and the practice had to be sold. Kit's rather older brother took his half of the inheritance and set up as a stockbroker, but Kit, restless, decided to travel the world for a few years. Now back in England, he agrees to a trial period working for an older doctor in a London suburb, Minfield, where Kit's brother's partner Jack Rochester lives. 

Kit's new boss, Dr. Peabody, lives with his 30ish daughter Ethel, who keeps house; and his grandson Jem, whose mother decided to leave him with her father while she and her husband manage a tea farm in Ceylon. They are soon joined by Dr. Peabody's other daughter, Dolly, who has been sent home by her Navy husband because she is pregnant. There are tensions, mainly due to Ethel, who immediately manifests a dislike of Kit, and who clearly does not get on with her sister at all. But Kit settles in; impressing his new mentor with his skill. He also makes a great friend of Jem. Then he is called to the Rochester house to treat their housemaid, and the instant he sees Jack's wife Mardie, he falls desperately in love. 

That sets up the fundamental arc of the novel. It soon becomes clear that the Rochester marriage is troubled -- because Jack is undergoing what I'd call a nervous breakdown. Kit (and Dr. Peabody) decide that he is dangerously insane -- paranoid -- and I have to say that I found Stevenson's treatment of mental illness rather off. Kit tries to keep from getting too involved with Mardie, but it's hopeless, while Mardie, though attracted to Kit, remains loyal to her husband and tries to control his moods. It all comes to a head when Rochester disappears. This is an issue for Kit's brother -- to have a partner act so irresponsibly is bad for business! -- but of course much more so for Mardie, who has to give up her house and move back to her home in Scotland. As for Kit, he tries hard to find Jack Rochester, all the while aware that his love for Mardie is hopeless ...

The resolution, I have to say, is a thudding disappointment, the author essentially taking an implausibly easy and convenient way out. I think the novel ultimately a failure, marred by its bothersome treatment of mental illness and by its botched ending. But there is a lot to like -- Jem is a delightful character, and much of the day to day action, and the treatment of the main characters, is very nicely done. On the evidence of this novel, Stevenson was an effective storyteller, and had a nice light hand with her characters. This book didn't work, but a quick check showed me that Stevenson's fans seem to share my view -- this was not the right Stevenson book with which to start! I'll be reading more of her work -- I have an old copy of Miss Buncle's Book, for example, which seems quite highly regarded.

A couple more minor points. The book is set in 1938 or more likely 1939 (one character saw Snow White "several months earlier" and it went into wide release in February 1938.) A prominent character is a Navy wife -- and yet there is no presentiment of her husband's likely fraught responsibilities, and indeed she is shown, months later, frolicking on the beach in Bermuda. Another character (not seen) lives in Ceylon; and at the end of the movie Ethel departs for India (with her "great friend" Olive -- I don't think Stevenson meant this but it's intriguing to wonder if Ethel is a lesbian.) (Indeed, I felt Ethel was a missed opportunity -- she's portrayed as mostly rather an unmotivated shrew, her dislike for Mardie never explained, her dislike for Dolly maybe resulting from her interest in Dolly's husband? A better back story for Ethel, a fuller characterization, would have been nice.) Anyway -- we know now that the near future for all these characters is going to be a struggle -- and the novel as written is entirely unaware of this. Granted, Stevenson was writing in 1938 or 1939, and perhaps understandably couldn't foresee the future, but it does resonate oddly in our minds. Always I remember Philip Larkin's great poem "MCMXIV" -- "never such innocence again". 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

New Bestseller Review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

a review by Rich Horton

Emily St. John Mandel's first big splash was Station Eleven (2014), a novel about a pandemic (and its aftermath, 20 years later.) Which makes it SF, to be sure, and unlike some writers from the so-called "mainstream," Mandel made no effort to deny that. (Indeed, others of her novels have to some extent been crime fiction.) I loved Station Eleven, and I liked (and sometimes loved) the TV series made from it (which has significant changes to the novel, for understandable reasons, but the result is that it's a different story, and not quite as good.) I thought Station Eleven should have gotten at least a Hugo nomination, but, hey, it was the 2015 Hugos! It did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Her followup, The Glass House (2020), was more a of a crime novel. Sea of Tranquility appeared in 2022, and was written during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Intriguingly, and perhaps a bit oddly, just as Station Eleven gained additional notoriety as being a pandemic novel, Mandel, during the real pandemic, chose to write yet another pandemic novel! It's also an SF novel, engaging much more directly with SFnal ideas that Station Eleven, and with a much wider and wilder variety of ideas. To add to the complications, Sea of Tranquility is also, in a way, a sequel -- or at least significantly related to -- The Glass Hotel. (Mandel seems to be entering David Mitchell territory in a way, especially as apparently The Glass Hotel refers to the Georgia Flu from Station Eleven!)

I won't bury the lede any more. What did I think? Sea of Tranquility is very enjoyable novel qua novel. Mandel is truly a wonderful storyteller, somebody you want to read. But as SF? For an experienced SF reader -- well, at least for me! -- I found the SF aspects weak. There are lots of cool ideas, but they don't all hang together, and some make no particular sense. A term I like to use -- I think I'm the only one -- is "through-composed". That is, has the author thought through the implications of their extrapolations? Do the various aspects make sense together? Do the ideas even work -- that is, are they scientifically plausible? I think for many writers -- particularly, I suspect, those not fully imbued in genre conventions, but, honestly, plenty of full-on SF writers too -- these questions don't matter much. Some might just say, "Are these ideas cool?" Some might say, "I just wanted to set up a setting for my novel." And some -- and Mandel may fit this category -- might say, "Sure, some of these extrapolations may not work, but what I really want is to explore my central idea, or my characters." I can forgive all these approaches, especially the latter, but they are still weaknesses, and often weaknesses that could be fixed.

So, what's going on in the book? It's set in four time frames. It opens in 1912, with Edwin St. John St. Andrews, a "remittance man" -- exiled from his noble English family to Canada for his excessively radical views -- wandering aimlessly across the country to Vancouver island, where, near the village of Caiette (familiar, I understand, to readers of The Glass Hotel) he experiences something very strange in the woods, and encounters an unusual "priest" named Roberts. (Edwin's middle name, St. John, is the same as Mandel's, and indeed he is apparently at least a bit based on one of Mandel's ancestors.)

Then, in 2020, Mirella Kessler (also familiar to readers of The Glass Hotel) is looking for news about her former friend Vincent, and attends a performance by Vincent's brother Paul, a composer, in which he shows a multimedia piece including a video by his sister, which shows a scene near Caiette in the 1990s that is strikingly similar (the reader sees -- Mirella of course doesn't understand) to what Edwin saw in 1912. Mirella also meets a man named Roberts who is also interested in Paul Smith's video -- and, strangely, Mirella recognizes Roberts from a traumatic encounter in her childhood. (The very earliest stages of COVID are mentioned in this segment as well.)

By now, most SF readers will have guessed that Roberts is a time traveller. Which is true, but in different ways with different implications than we might imagine. Next we go to 2203, and "the last book tour on Earth". Olive Llewellyn is a writer from a Moon colony. She is touring Earth in support of the movie version of her book Marienbad, which had been a huge bestseller a few years before. Marienbad is about a plague. (The conclusion that many of Olive's experiences on her book tour directly echo Mandel's experiences in discussing her huge bestseller about a plague, Station Eleven, are unavoidable.) As Olive's tour continues, rumors of a new plague originating in Australia arise ... The segment ends with Olive giving an interview to a man named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts -- a curious coincidence as a character in Marienbad was also named Gaspery-Jacques. And Roberts asks Olive a particular question -- about a scene in Marienbad which mentions a strange experience in an airship terminal in Oklahoma ... a vision that very much resembles that seen by Edwin in 1912, and by Vincent Smith in her video. 

Then to 2401. Now Gaspery is the main character. We learn that in fact he was named after the character in Marienbad, and in fact that he grew up in the same Moon colony where Olive grew up -- on the same street, even, though in the centuries since Olive's childhood that neighborhood has changed -- their particular colony is now the "Night Colony", as their dome lighting has failed. Gaspery makes his way to the more successful Colony One on the Moon, and, after a failed marriage and a fairly aimless succession of jobs, he begs his brilliant sister Zoe to help him get a job for the Time Institute -- a job investigating, via time travel, some anomalous historical occurrences -- indeed, one anomaly is the strange visions shared by Edwin, Vincent, and Olive.

I've not mentioned the fundamental reason this "anomaly" is being investigated, and I think I'll leave it for readers of the novel to discover, It's another science fictional idea, a fairly familiar one, but it's the SF idea that is really most central to this novel's theme. In that sense, it's the one idea that works. And it resolves in a fairly moving way. Despite this novel being set in four time frames, with four main characters, it resolves to being a novel about one character, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, and his quite unusual life. And its also about that last idea, and what it really means for the characters involved. And on these terms it's quite successful. Gaspary's eventual conclusion seems true -- honest and moving. It's also true that the plot machinations to get him there are rather creaky. But Mandel's ability as a storyteller finesses a lot of that.

Still -- an SF reader is going to ask a lot of questions. Questions like: "Why are the hotels Olive stays at in 2203, a future with a completely fractured US and Canada, with Moon colonies (and planned colonies in the outer planets, and in Alpha Centauri's system), still called Marriot or La Quinta?" Questions like: "How do they get to Alpha Centauri in a reasonable time?" Questions like: "How do the Moon colonies really work?" Questions like: "How many people live on the Moon in 2203? And in that case, do the plague casualty numbers add up?" And so on. I don't think the future Mandel depicts makes much sense, and that bothers me. But, I admit, perhaps that doesn't really matter so much to her aim in the novel.

Bottom line -- I'll quote John Kessel, who suggested that this is very bad science fiction; but not necessarily a bad novel. I agree.