Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Two Treasures from Boskone (or just after)

Two Treasures from Boskone (or just after)

by Rich Horton

One of the joys of being in a community like the SF community is the opportunity to receive special, indeed unique, gifts from fellow members of said community. Recently at the Boston convention Boskone I attended a Kaffeklatsch hosted by Michael Swanwick. Michael's conversation was reward enough, but he also gave each of us a lovely tiny book created by his wife, Marianne Porter. This book, written and made for Valentine's Day, is called Fantasia Romantica. It includes several short-shorts on the subject of romance written by Michael, and it is itself a lovely physical object. At Boskone I also met, for the first time in person, Gregory Feeley (long an online friend.) We shared a couple of panels, and had a couple of nice conversations (and food and drink.) Shortly after the convention was over, Greg sent me a chapbook, another lovely object, privately printed, called Th'Erratic Stars: an excerpt from a novel he's worked on for years, called Hamlet the Magician

Th'Erratic Stars
is a truly beautiful story about a European prince, now enslaved, first on a galley in the Mediterranean, then in Cairo, and by the end heading to Aleppo. The title of the novel means it comes as no surprise when we learn that this prince is from Denmark, where his uncle is King and his mother Queen. (This excerpt's title comes from Chaucer, however -- from a Chaucer work on a subject Shakespeare also wrote of.) It's an alternate Denmark, to be sure, from that of Shakespeare's play -- for one thing, Hamlet has left behind a wife (presumably Ophelia), and he has been exiled and, now, enslaved. The first section, "The Caitiff", begins, as I said, at sea, on a galley. The Prince is of course an oarsmen, subject to the ill use and illness often experienced by those, and his surviving one serious bout gives him a reputation as a witch -- only exacerbated when the ship encounters a storm and the Prince survives ... well, of course, he is a witch. They proceed to Egypt, where he is sold. Fearing castration, he instead lands at the house of a man with a library, and begins to help the librarian catalog that collection. The second section, "The Scholar", involves his work at this man's library, and especially his time with the librarian's daughter, who is also a scholar. The Prince is all along gaining knowledge -- of Arabic, for one, and learning to understand the Islamic attitude about magia, and, slowly, becoming entranced by Zaynab, the librarian's daughter. But this of course cannot be -- for one thing, he is a Christian, for another, she is not in control of her fate, nor is she of all that high status. And by the third section, "The Magus", everything is altered -- Zaynab's father's master is dead, she herself has undergone wrenching personal changes -- and the Prince is once again sold, and sent to Aleppo -- which at least is closer to Persia, where he might hope to learn more about true magic.

This is most definitely a novel excerpt, and not in itself a complete story. But it intrigues throughout. Hamlet is a compelling character, and there is a mystery in his past -- to say nothing of the questions about his future -- that urges discovery. The Zaynab section is one of the most well done sublimated romances I have read. The prose throughout is -- I shy from this cliche but it is true -- exquisite: balanced, intelligent, beautiful when it needs it, free itself of cliche. The historical milieu is convincing and fascinating. It is an great introduction to a novel I desperately hope to read.

Michael Swanwick's Fantasia Romantica is sort of the opposite, in comprising several quite complete, but very short, stories. The stories are all about love (and sex), and are all titled for women. Most of the women are fictional characters: Titania (from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), Prunella Chanticleer (from Lud-in-the-Mist), Campaspe (a probably apocryphal mistress of Alexander the Great), Rosie (from The Lord of the Rings), Susan (from the Chronicles of Narnia), and ... Caitlin (who becomes involved with Archimago (from The Faerie Queene)). Each story is clever, arch, sweet if need be, slightly cynical if need be, sexy -- and fun. They are short-shorts, and I don't want to describe them further, but they are very enjoyable. And the slim book itself is a lovely object, with the nice cover depicted here, and excellent paper ... something I'm thrilled to have.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

a review by Rich Horton

I had read a couple other things by William Makepeace Thackeray, but never yet his most famous novel, Vanity Fair. (I've called this an Old Bestseller Review, a nod to this blog's original purpose -- not because I have bestseller lists dating to the 1840s but because Vanity Fair was definitely a sensation on its appearance.) I absolutely love Thackeray's great historical novel, Henry Esmond, which I review here:

Review of Henry Esmond.

Along the way I had bought a couple of used editions of Vanity Fair, with the idea that I'd surely read it someday. But a couple of years ago I found a quite lovely boxed edition, from Random House in 1958, with illustrations by Robert Ball. I snapped it up cheap at the used bookstore where I saw it, which was, alas, going out of business. And, a bit later, I started reading it -- but then set it aside, for reasons to do partly with deadlines, and perhaps also partly the pandemic. Upon my retirement from my Locus column, some reading time opened up, and I decided to return to Vanity Fair. I read it over the next few weeks much, I suppose, as its original readers did -- a chapter or two at a time. (The novel was serialized in 19 monthly parts in 1847 and 1848. The book version appeared in 1848.)

This is one of those cases where my review is more or less superfluous -- Vanity Fair is one of the all time classic English novels. Numerous trees have given their lives for pieces about the book, professors have told their students what to think for a century and a half, and I'm sure many more illustrious book bloggers than me have weighed in. So take my brief look for what it's worth. I will say to begin with that this is an immensely entertaining book -- but that I still rank it behind Henry Esmond. Perhaps some of this is down to the accurate subtitle -- A Novel Without a Hero. In Henry Esmond there is no doubt that Henry -- for all his faults -- is the hero of his narrative (if, perhaps, partly because it is framed as his narrative.) Vanity Fair is framed quite differently -- the author (a fairly direct avatar of Thackeray) conceives of himself as a puppeter, manipulating his characters through their decades long adventures. And the main character, Becky Sharp, for all that she is one of the best known characters in Victorian literature, is not only not a hero, but is absent from the book for chapters at a time. The two most virtuous characters, Becky's friend Amelia Sedley, and William Dobbin, a friend of Amelia's husband George Osborne, doomed to a hopeless love for Amelia (who foolishly dotes on the worthless George); are presented as basically good but in different ways rather foolish.

The action of the story extends from about 1814 to the early '30s. Becky Sharp is the pennyless orphaned daughter of a rackety couple -- an art dealer and a French dancer -- who has managed to get an education by teaching French at a school for young women of society, and who there befriends Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy man of business. The story follows, essentially, the love lives of the two women (using the term "love" perhaps unwisely!) Becky is from the beginning an amoral schemer, and, beginning with Amelia's brother Jos, she sets her cap at a variety of men -- failing to get Jos to propose she pivots to an elderly baronet, Sir Pitt Crawley, then to Sir Pitt's younger son Rawdon. Once married to Rawdon, who ends up penniless because of his family's objection to the marriage, she attracts a lot of sexual attention from society men, especially the rather vile Marquis of Steyne -- always with the object of getting her hands on money. Amelia, on the other hand, falls for the handsome but irresponsible and rather stupid George Osborne, son of one of her father's business partners; even while George's friend, the sometimes socially awkward (and not so handsome) Captain William Dobbin is pathetically devoted to her. Amelia's fiscal life is also fraught, partly because the elder Osborne disinherits his son after Amelia's father loses his fortune because of some unlucky investments. And when Amelia's husband dies at Waterloo, she is reduced to living in poverty with her parents, and forced to give up her beloved son to the Osborne family. Becky also has a son by Rawdon Crawley, but she has no interest in motherhood, and Rawdon Jr. also ends up with his relatives (despite his father's sincere love for his son.)

The novel follows the fortunes of the two women and their families, with Amelia selflessly (but often foolishly) serving her mother and father in their sad state, and mooning over her dead husband, never realizing how he betrayed her (for the most notorious example, by having a brief affair with Becky Sharp and urging her to run away with him just before the battle that took his life.) It is only Captain Dobbin's often secret interventions that keep Amelia barely above water financially, and that allow her boy to go to school -- but she never deigns to take notice of poor William except as a friend. Meanwhile Becky's adventures seem to prosper for a while -- with Lord Steyne's sponsorship, she becomes a fashionable if somewhat scandalous hostess, and she squirrels away some money even as her husband's debts mount. (There is a delighful chapter called "How to Live Well on Nothing a Year".) But Becky overplays her hand, and ends up separated from her husband and wandering Europe. The novel's concluding chapters resolve things by reuniting all the main characters to one degree or another, each getting a fairly appropriate fate.

As must be obvious, the aim of the book is satire. And it delivers in spades. The novel is stuffed with amusing and mildly grotesque characters -- pretty much the entire Crawley family, most obviously, and to a lesser degree the Osbornes and their associates, not to mention Captain Dobbin's military company. The plot is quite intricate, if a bit loose-limbed (an inevitable consequence, I think, of both the length of time covered, and of the serial method of publication (and presumably composition.) While the misadventures of the amoral Becky Sharp seem the moral center of the book, in reality no aspect of British society escape criticism. It is possible to have some sympathy for Becky's life circumstances -- she does seem to be treated unfairly because of her birth -- she squanders all that sympathy by her financial dishonesty, her apparently loveless sex life (though the book is far more circumspect about her actual sex life than the same book would be if written today), and most of all by her treatment of her child. And even Amelia, a much sweeter and more virtuous person, is portrayed as downright stupid, and terribly obtuse and unfair in her relationship with the only too faithful William. 

The book is what its reputation says -- one of the great Victorian novels. It is archly funny, biting, and absorbing. I still wasn't transported in quite the way I was with Henry Esmond, but I'm not sure that was the aim of this novel. I'll get to another Thackeray novel some time in the future -- maybe Pendennis? -- but first I need to sample some other Victorians -- Trollope, Mrs. Gaskell, Collins, another Brontë novel besides Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre ... who should it be?

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Old Magazine Review: Star Science Fiction, January 1958

Star Science Fiction, January 1958

a review by Rich Horton

I wrote this piece way back in May of 2003, but as this issue -- the only issue -- of Star Science Fiction recently came up in conversation, and also I recently acquired Chandler Davis' collection It Walks in Beauty, the title story of which appeared first in this magazine, I thought I'd reprint it now.

As I'm sure I've made clear in these pages, I collect old SF magazines. Sometimes I buy them for just one story -- for example I've been looking for the uncollected stories of Poul Anderson lately. But usually I end up reading several of the stories in any given magazine -- all the really short ones, and any longer ones that look even remotely interesting. I've read a number of decent stories that way, and I've gained a pretty good (I think) feel for the general zeitgeist of 50s SF, and for the nature of the various magazines of that time. But, probably not surprisingly, I rarely if ever come across stories that could be called neglected classics. Pretty much, any story from the 50s that was particularly good got noticed and anthologized.* (Certainly the uncollected Anderson stories are generally uncollected for understandable reasons -- though I think those stories in general good enough that a retrospective collection would be a worthy project.)

(*That said, from the perspective of 20 years or so later, I think I have come across enough unanthologized or barely anthologized '50s stories that deserve to be better remembered that I could assemble a fine small anthology.)

Pretty much all the good stories were anthologized. But I think I may have found one counterexample. I bought a copy of the January 1958 issue of Star Science Fiction. This magazine, which lasted only one issue, was edited by Frederik Pohl, and it was an attempt to turn his successful original anthology series into a magazine. I had never heard of it until I read a Bud Webster article about the Star anthologies in, as I recall, NYRSF, a few months ago. Well, one of Poul Anderson's stories that has never appeared in a book is "The Apprentice Wobbler", which appeared in this issue of Star. So I found a copy and bought it.

But, alas, the Anderson story isn't the neglected classic. In fact, it's a very minor story that reads like a Randall Garrett made-to-order-for-Campbell story, about psi. A corporation sends an engineer to investigate the small company that has been producing machines that allow people to levitate and move objects and create energy, with the intention of discrediting them. In pure Campbell manner, the guy discovers that psi is a real power, but you can't use it if you have even a shred of disbelief, so the machine is just a placebo to make you think the power is coming from elsewhere blah blah blah. Competent, to be sure, it being Anderson, but not very good. I wonder why he didn't sell it to Campbell? Or maybe Campbell bounced it.

But there are several other stories in Star. Indeed the magazine is quite good. I'm not sure why it didn't survive -- I suspect Ballantine, the publisher, may not have been well tied into the magazine distribution system. Also, 1958 wasn't a very good time to start a magazine -- around that time is when the SF field went through one of its crashes, in great part due to the collapse of a major magazine distributor. (Curiously, I have also seen people blame Sputnik!) Finally, though the magazine was high quality, it was very thin, only 128 not very tightly packed pages, for 35 cents, a high end price in those days. Perhaps buyers felt they weren't getting full value in terms of word count. Physically, I liked the look OK -- a beautiful yellowish Richard Powers cover, and interior illustrations all by Powers, but I don't know how widely Powers' abstract style appealed, especially for interiors.

Another notable story this issue is "Judas Dancing" (better known, I believe, as "Judas Danced"), by Brian Aldiss. It's a time viewer story, plus a time travel story, about a multiple murderer who is repeatedly resurrected (via time travel) along with his victim. It reminded me a bit of Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind". 

There is also an Algis Budrys story, "Mark X", under his pseudonym "John A. Sentry". I'm puzzled as to why he published the story under a pseudonym, because it deals with an idea he used in several Astounding stories -- a quasi-intelligent device called an AID which is implanted in people's brains. In the Astounding stories it's used in a war against aliens called Eglins (after the Air Force base in Florida?) -- it prevents prisoners from revealing information under interrogation, and it implants a compulsion to get crucial information back to humanity. The best of those stories, and a favorite of mine when I was much younger, is "The War is Over", a really cool (if perhaps crudely told) piece about the efforts of an AID over many generations to deliver the title message. "Mark X" may or may not be in the same continuity -- it does mention the Eglins -- but it's set on Earth, and deals with an experimental new model of the AID, which turns out to have unexpected side effects. I didn't find it very convincing, though. 

There is also a Robert Bloch fable about nuclear war, "Daybroke", which didn't quite work for me partly because of the contempt I felt it displayed towards people, and Isaac Asimov's story "S as in Zebatinsky" (aka "Spell My Name with an S"), about the possible wide ranging effects of a simple one letter change in a man's name. (Apparently inspired by Asimov's frustration over people misspelling his name.) And Gavin Hyde, who according to the ISFDB published only three stories, contributes a decent story called "Nor the Moon by Night", about a chess master who volunteers to be uploaded into a computer after death to serve as a chess instructor, and his despair at the loss of normal human feelings.

All those make a decent set of stories -- well above the average quality of an SF magazine back then, but the story that really surprised me was the opening novelette, "It Walks in Beauty", by Chan Davis. Davis is a mathematician who published roughly a dozen SF stories, beginning in 1946, the latest in 1994 in Crank! His best known stories may be "Letter to Ellen" (1947) and "Adrift on the Policy Level" (1959 -- from Pohl's anthologi series Star, #5). He's also known for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being fired from his position at the University of Michigan as a result. He is a highly respected mathematician on his own terms -- having long since moved to Canada, to teach at the University of Toronto. He was born in 1926, and is still alive at age 95. He may be the oldest living SF writer after the death of James Gunn.

"It Walks in Beauty" only ever appeared in this issue of Star. [As of my writing -- it has been reprinted since as I will discuss later.] It's the story of a factory worker named Max. We learn right away that he is in love with a woman named Luana -- but soon we learn that she is some sort of a stripper, and that men regularly visit "houses" with these strippers -- and every so often one of them is chosen to be "jaypeed" and presumably enjoy her favors. A strange element is the "career girls" Max works with -- they are referred to as "it", and they dress mannishly, and they are regarded with a sort of pity and condescension. Max becomes friends with one such career girl, against his will pretty much, and he is exposed to some of the truth about "women" and "career girls". But can he react against his own social conditioning? The basic social setup is interesting but in the end I don't think it quite holds together, but the rather subtly portrayed look at male/female relationships, and the way it shows gender expectations distorting our perception of both men and women, trapping both sexes in stereotypical roles, really worked for me. Perhaps the story is a bit dated, but I was very impressed by it. I think it would be an excellent choice for some sort of "Tiptree Rediscovery Award", if the Tiptree folks did anything like that. 

Maybe "It Walks in Beauty" isn't quite a masterpiece. But I thought it pretty darn good, and I'm surprised that it's never resurfaced since that first printing. 

I actually, after writing this review, wrote to Ellen Datlow to bring this story to her attention for possible reprint at Sci Fiction. I'm not sure it was my prompting or something else, but in September of 2003 Sci Fiction did reprint "It Walks in Beauty" -- and with Chandler Davis' original (and preferred) ending. Pohl had asked for a change to the end, which in Davis' opinion (and mine!) weakened the story. I actually nominated it for a Hugo that year, on the grounds that it was sufficiently "new" due to the changed ending to be eligible; and also on the grounds that it was one of the 5 best novelettes of the year. And in 2010, Aqueduct Press published It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, which reprints several of his stories and a number of essays. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Review: On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

Review: On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

a review by Rich Horton

Last year a new imprint, Erewhon, published the first novels of two writers I have long considered among the most short fiction writers to debut in this millennium. (I like typing millennium instead of "century" or "last two decades" but they all mean the same thing in this context!) One of these is The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, which I have reviewed here already. The other is On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu.

Yu made her first sale to the Kenyon Review in 2010 (neatly establishing her genre-crossing and literary cred from the getgo!) and in 2011 her second sale, "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees", from Clarkesworld, made a big splash in the SF field, garnering Hugo and Nebula nominations, being reprinted in a couple of Best of the Year volumes (including, ahem, mine!) and contributing to her much deserved Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She has continued to publish lovely short fiction, sometimes straight SF, sometimes fantasy, sometimes mainstream, often an intriguing melange of genres. For that matter, she has worked in different forms entirely, including poetry and an opera libretto.

On Fragile Waves is a powerful novel on a very contemporary theme, that if anything has become more powerful, more apposite, since it appeared. It is the story of an Afghan family, fleeing the chaos in Afghanistan. At one level, it is purely naturalistic fiction, and very effectively so. But there is a fantastical level as well (or "magical realistic" as many reviews would have it) expressed in two ways -- the stories the parents of the main character tell, traditional stories (with variations) ... and, more obviously, a dead character who returns to haunt -- or inspire -- the main character.

The story is centered on Firuzeh, her brother Nour, and their parents. As it begins they are trying to arrange a way out of Afghanistan, dealing with corruption and broken promises of course -- and then they leave, first to Pakistan, then by boat to Nauru. The boat trip is terrifying, and on the way there is a typhoon, and Nasima, who has become sort of a frenemy to Firuzeh, is drowned. But she returns, haunting Firuzeh, sometimes hinting at the future. In Nauru they are marooned in a refugee camp for a long time -- a couple of years I suppose. Some families are forced to return home, others find a place in Australia, by some cruel random-seeming process. There is a cruelty from the guards, and endless boredom. But finally their chance comes, and they make it to Melbourne. The rest of the story follows their extremely strained introduction to Australian culture, learning the language, finding jobs (the father is a skilled auto mechanic, but such jobs are not easy for an immigrant with only a "Temporary Permanent Visa" to find), adjusting to school. There is help from well-meaning social workers and charities, and resentment from racist local. Nour is good at soccer and finds a team; Firuzeh makes friends at school and learns that that friendship may be conditional, and their parents struggle bitterly to make ends meet. And always there is the specter of their visas being canceled hanging over them.

The resolution remains somewhat conditional, balancing wrenching tragedy with real hope. It is affecting, quite powerful, angry, resigned, and beautifully written. A strong first novel, and one that remains timely (probably, alas, always will.) As I said, there is a fantastic element, but it's rather slim -- it works perfectly well as a realistic novel with a half-metaphorical (but maybe not?) glaze of magical realism enhancing it. Yu's short fiction always promised first-rate novels to come -- though even they didn't first-rate short fiction is reward enough! -- and this book only makes we want more fiction. (Which I did anyway!) 

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Review: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Review: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

a review by Rich Horton

It's not often we get a new SF novel by a Nobel Laureate who has already written SF! But here is Klara and the Sun, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel since he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. And Ishiguro's two previous novels were SF or Fantasy -- The Buried Giant (2015) is a quasi-Arthurian Fantasy, and Never Let Me Go (2004) is science fiction about clones. I loved The Buried Giant, but I have not yet read Never Let Me Go.

What did I think about Klara and the Sun? Well -- it's a bit complicated. I loved it, from one angle. (I hope the right angle.) But from another angle -- my SF reader angle -- I was disappointed. I'll discuss that later, but I'll suggest here that on its own terms -- doing what the novel, I assume, wants to do -- Klara and the Sun is a very successful novel, dealing with some interesting technological issues, portraying its non-human narrator convincingly and in a affecting fashion, and featuring a powerful and moving, even wrenching, story. Really, it is a fable, a fable about what it is to be human. (Its themes seem to resonate strongly with those of Never Let Me Go.)

But viewed purely as science fiction, it doesn't quite work. It fails to present its two primary technological innovations in convincing future context, it fails to truly interrogate the technological -- and even social -- basis and effects of either the Artificial Friends or the "lifting" process (I'll get to those in a bit.) An SF reader wants to see this -- wants to see the world that produces these changes, and how that world is thus changed, and also, crucially, wants to see the characters confront this. Ishiguro, here, doesn't care -- that's not his story, not his theme. In Science Fictional terms, the story is "thin", or as I like to put it, it is not "through-composed". That is -- the novum, or novae -- the new elements -- are largely isolated. Great SF takes its novae and examines their pasts (how they came to be), their presents (how the ramifications of any given novum spread through their world", and their futures -- how people react, how the future changes because of the novae, how dystopic novae are challenged. All this is great. It is also rare. Lots of SF half-asses this -- to take an easy example, how about Star Trek? How about the transporter? This kind of tech would be radically usable, in numerous ways -- but in Star Trek, it is used in only one simple way.

So -- I see this, and I see that Klara and the Sun does not fulfill this SFnal objective. And to me, in the context of this novel, that doesn't matter. Because it is working in one direction, making one (very important) point -- and in that sense it succeeds.

(I'm going to make a reference to a pretty obscure Scottish SF writer, J. T. McIntosh. His futures had a similarly lightly sketched future setting, almost always, even when set on other planets, oddly Earthlike, and Fifties-like -- and he claimed he did this on purpose, to concentrate on his single SF concept. Ishiguro can write rings around McIntosh, but his strategy here (and, I think, in Never Let Me Go (but NOT in The Buried Giant)) is similar.)

The novel opens with Klara, an Artificial Friend, in a store which sells AFs. Her voice is established from the beginning -- she is very naive, and interprets what she sees -- and she sees a lot -- without benefit of teaching. She encounters a number of potential owners -- teenagers, and we quickly gather that one girl, who is clearly ill, is going to be her owner. But Klara's time at the store is unexpectedly long -- the girl (Josie) doesn't come back as quickly as Klara thinks, and indeed Klara purposely discomfits another potential buyer because she too has chosen Josie. Soon Klara's friend Rosa is sold, and some newer, better, models are introduced ... but then Josie returns. In the meantime, Klara's devotion to the Sun is established (AFs are solar powered) and her hatred of pollution, and in particular of a construction machine that she calls the Cootings Machine (because that is the name printed on it) which belches smoke while it is operating.

Klara moves to Josie's house, of course, which is in a rural area distant from the city where Klara's shop was. Josie lives with her Mother, Chrissie Arthur, whom Klara calls The Mother. Chrissie is divorced, and eventually we gather that her marriage foundered partly because of the death of Josie's older sister Sal; and perhaps also because The Father (Paul) lost his job -- in a curious turn of phrase he says he was "substituted." The next door neighbors are another single mother, Helen, and her son Rick, who has been Josie's best friend from a young age. We also learn that Josie is "lifted" -- she has been genetically altered for, primarily, greater intelligence. Rick is not lifted, but he seems clever anyway -- and he also has to care for his rather rackety mother. More slowly, we gather that "lifting" comes with risks, and Josie's illness is apparently a side effect (as was the illness that killed her sister.) All this knowledge comes to us through Klara's naive filter, as do our observations of the interactions of Josie during her (rare) meetings with other lifted children. Over time, Klara becomes obsessed with the idea that if she only asks, the Sun will make a special effort to cure Josie, even as Josie's condition worsens. 

A trip to the city is the fulcrum for the key revelations of the book. These turn on, first, the nature of a picture Josie has been sitting for; and, second, Klara's self-sacrificing actions to try to gain the Sun's favor for Josie. Oh, and Rick's conflicts with his mother over a chance for him to go to college (usually reserved for the lifted).

I found this all quite moving, particularly from within Klara. The novel presents the innocent Klara as (so it seems to me) truly human (because truly able to love) and yet her society does not even consider that as a possibility, and her fate is truly sad even though she is never sad. The divisions in this society are presented but not really challenged -- between the "lifted" and the non-lifted, between AFs and humans, between people like Paul who have been "substituted" (by younger "lifted" people?) and those who still have good jobs. This is one area where an SF reader expects some sort of aspiration for change (even if it must fail) -- and some sort of more direct interrogation of these divisions. And Klara and the Sun doesn't offer this -- and it doesn't matter because what matters here is, really, Klara, and our realization that she is human -- and, crucially (especially in context) she is her own self.

The prose is deliberately simple, reflecting Klara's naivete -- but it's well done, and sweet and oddly incisive at times. Rick and Josie and the Mother are also well realized characters (though at times the Mother's actions in particular seem a bit unmotivated.) There are missteps -- the means by which Klara eventually takes action against a Cootings machine is kind of silly, and way too convenient; and the setting, apparently somewhere in the US, is only sketched in -- this may have been on purpose, perhaps to emphasize that Klara knows nothing more of it; but it gives the book an unmoored feel at times. Still, the book lands, and I loved reading it, and was truly moved. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Hugo Recommendations, 2022

 Hugo Recommendations, 2022

Hugo nominations for 2022, to be awarded at Chicon later this year, are due by March 15, which is in only a week, of course. These recommendations are incomplete, in a sense, as my reading has so far been confined to only a few novels, and to the short fiction that I reviewed for Locus. There unquestionalby worthy stories that I have so far missed. 


The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I really loved both these books, in somewhat different ways. The Unraveling is far future SF, with really intriguing speculation on alternate economies, different forms of human bodies, different gender definitions, and societal change. Klara and the Sun is near future SF, with frankly rather thinnish speculation -- the two SFnal ideas, Artificial Friends (androids who serve as companions for children) and genetic "lifting" for children born to families who can afford it, are both very familiar and not really fully thought through (as in, in what other ways would society change if such things could be?), but the novel is much more interested in asking what does it mean to be human, and it is very good at exploring that.

I am going to read Far From the Light of Heaven, by Tade Thompson, next -- and I will say it looks very promising!


John Kessel, "The Dark Ride", (F&SF, 1-2/20)

Ray Nayler, "A Rocket for Demetrios", (Asimov's, 1-2/20)

Kessel's "The Dark Ride" is a neat and, yes, dark story of the last days of the assassin of President McKinley, and of his remarkable trip to the Moon, and the revolution he gets involved with up there. Nayler's story is part of his alternate history in which the US recovered some amazing tech from a crashed alien ship -- it has its share of action and intrigue, and plenty of cool Science Fictional aspects, but it is mostly deeply an examination of morality and loyalty as it applies to nations.


Fran Wilde, "Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.", (Uncanny, 5-6/21)

David Moles, "The Metric", (Asimov’s, 5-6/21)

Gregory Feeley, "The Children of the Wind", (Asimov's, 7-8/21)

Nalo Hopkinson, "Broad Dutty Water: A Sunken Story", (F&SF, 11-12/21)

Fran Wilde's story is a lovely fantasy about an aspiring dress designer who gets a chance to work for the title company, making a dress for her best friend -- cool enough (and the imagined dresses are neat) -- but also we get -- labor issues! Moles' story is very very very far future SF, about two posthuman twins on different sides of the question of how to respond to a threat to the very universe. Feeley's is one of his long series (soon to be a novel, I trust) about an attempt to colonize Neptune (or its area) -- this one tells of a crucial riot/revolution arising from the rift between the Earthborn passengers and their children. Hopkinson's piece is set in the Caribbean, after climate change has radically altered life for everyone, but it's actually rather optimistic (as I wrote: "there are aspects here that seem almost utopian, from the technologically mediated green growing practices to printed ultralight planes that fly themselves to brain implants that can give you night vision (and much more.)") It's also a pretty cool adventure story.

Short Story

Cat Rambo, "Crazy Beautiful", (F&SF, 3-4/21)

Sarah Pinsker, "Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather", (Uncanny, 3-4/21) 

P. Djèlí Clark, "If the Martians Have Magic", (Uncanny, 9-10/21)

José Pablo Iriarte, "Proof by Induction", (Uncanny, 5-6/21)

Gregory Feeley, "Striding the Blast", (Asimov's, 11-12/21)

Rambo's piece is both about art, and why art might be important to an AI, and why an AI might see art differently than a human. And it’s both scary and ... crazy beautiful. Pinsker's is a beautiful and spooky story of an investigation into the origins of a certain folk song. Clark's is a lovely piece set decades after the Martian invasion in The War of the Worlds was repulsed by -- magic, and about its heroine's belief that Martians can do magic also. Iriarte's is about math, or rather, mathematicians -- a son using tech that can "revive" (in simulation) his dead father, with the hope that he can continue a collaboration on a proposed proof. (So, it's really about fathers and sons!) Feeley's story is fascinating posthuman hard SF set on Mercury, echoing mythology, highlighting the terrible nature of that culture and hoping for possible change. 

I had other outstanding candidates for Best Short Story, and I 'll list them here:

Karen Russell, "The Ghost Birds", (The New Yorker, 10/11/21)

Sofia Samatar, "Three Tales from the Blue Library", (Conjunctions:76)

Alexandra Seidel, "January House", (Not One of Us, 1/21)

Best Fan Writer

I mention this category as well, in part because I am eligible in it, and I would hope people will consider my writing ... But also to highlight some excellent fan writers I've been following. These include John Boston, reviewing Amazing Science Fiction of 55 years ago for Galactic Journey. (There are other fine writers for the Journey as well -- notably proprietor Gideon Marcus, and Cora Buhlert, already a two-time Hugo nominee, who writes about books from that time.) Also John O'Neill, editor/publisher of Black Gate (for which I write), who writes all sorts of cool stuff about books (vintage and new.) And there are two blogs I've been reading: Science Fiction Ruminations, by Joachim Boaz, in which he looks at short ficton and novels from before 1985, including extended series about subjects like astronauts, generation ships, and such authors as Carol Emshwiller. The other blog is the Hugo Book Club Blog, mostly written by Olav Rokne and Amanda Wakaruk -- so I would suppose a nomination ought to be for them as a team. 

Astounding Award for Best New Writer

I also looked through some lists of writers eligible for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer and these are the five whose stories have most impressed me over the past couple years:

Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko

Nadia Afifi

Charles Q. Choi

Shaoni C. White

John Possidente

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Boskone 59: A Con Report

 Boskone 59: A Con Report

by Rich Horton

My last convention before Covid was Capricon, in Chicago, in February 2020. For a few years prior to that I had been semi-alternating between Capricon (in my hometown) and Boskone (in my Dad's home state.) I remember that Capricon for unfortunate reasons -- I got violently sick, and managed only a couple of panels and about half a dinner with Arin Komins and Rich Warren before I had to retreat to my Mom's house for the weekend. (I admit that in later months I sometimes entertained the idea that I was all-unknowing Covid Patient Zero in the US, but, really the symptoms weren't consistent with that disease, and, anyway, it's kind of horrifying to think about me staying with my then 88 year old Mom and potentially giving her Covid -- luckily, no such thing happened (though as I recall Arin showed some signs of con crud and I may have contributed to that!) )

Since then the list of cons I wanted to attend that I could not has been truly depressing -- two Readercons, a Windycon, an Archon, a World Fantasy, two SFRA conferences (at one of which I was to receive an award!) ... the only convention I missed for good reasons was this past Worldcon, Discon III, which I missed because my grandson was born that week. Late last year I made single-day appearances to two cons -- Windy City Pulp and Paper, and Windycon, both late in 2021. But I wasn't on programming in either case, and I didn't really have the full experience, though they were certainly fun.

In 2022 I am ready to really get back to congoing, and Boskone 59 was my first chance! Thanks to Omicron it wasn't as fully attended as usual perhaps, but with Omicron rapidly receding it was still well-attended and lots of fun. (Though room parties remain a (wholly understandable) casualty!) The two Boskones I previously attended had already put it high on my list as a convention I would love, and this one was also delightful.

In fact my flight to Boston was my first time on an airplane since Covid. I had a work trip booked to Tuscon in mid-March 2020, cancelled at the last minute (I had hoped to run into my friends Claire Cooney and Carlos Hernandez that week, as they were in Arizona for what, as I recall, turned into an unplanned extended stay.) I still have, in my work account, credit for a future trip whenever I travel for business again. The flight to Boston was nice, in that the plane was perhaps 20% full -- a Covid hangover, I thought maybe? But both return legs were booked solid. On the way to Boston I read Robert Holdstock's Where Time Winds Blow, and on my return flight (twice as long due to connections and such) I read Peter Heath's The Mind Brothers, and E. Lily Yu's On Fragile Waves

I had two panels scheduled that evening: Rediscovering Great Writers and Books You've Never Heard Of; and Greatest SF/F/H Book You've Never Heard Of. Definitely worthwhile topics, but I have to say I had a hard time distinguishing between the two subjects! Add that I wasn't the only person to be on both panels -- so was Greg Feeley! The first panel also featured Jim Mann and Christine Taylor-Butler, and the second also featured Steven Popkes and Grant Carrington. Between the two panels I don't think we duplicated a single book, which I thought a good achievement. Alas, I didn't take notes, so I will forget many of the books we mentioned. Here are a few: Josephine Saxton's The Heiros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. (I learned something I had wondered about concerning Saxton -- she is mixed race.)  Several books by Edgar Pangborn, including of course A Mirror for Observers, but perhaps more intriguingly (as it's a lesser known book) a non-SF example, that Greg suggested might be his best novel, A Wilderness of Spring. Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial (and also Trafalgar.) You Shall Know Them, by Vercors. Growing Up in Tier 3000, by Felix Gotschalk. Floating Worlds, by Cecelia Holland (a book which I think occurred to both Greg and me independently.) And Chaos Died, by Joanna Russ -- nominated by Greg on the grounds that while Russ is of course well-remembered, this one of her books, much celebrated on first appearance, is somewhat neglected now. (And, indeed, it's not a book I think of often, though I certainly read it when I was young.) The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn, by Algis Budrys. (A strange book, and one of my favorite Budrys novels, though it was Greg's choice.) (I added a mention of Budrys' last novel, Hard Landing.) Fremder, by Russell Hoban. I think we were all aware of the risk of the panels becoming "list panels" (indeed that risk applied to all four of my panels) and I think we did a good job avoiding, for instance diving into a discussion of canon forming at one point.

My other two panels were on Saturday. One was a panel I've done before at Boskone, with the same four person team as I recall: myself, Bod Devney, Vince Docherty and Jim Mann; recommending Hugos in the fiction categories. As always, we ran out of time! I suggested The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum in novel; "The Dark Ride" by John Kessel in novella, "If the Martians Have Magic" by P. Djèli Clark in novelette, and "Crazy Beautiful" by Cat Rambo in short story. Other stories mentioned (some by me, and others of which I'd have mentioned but someone else beat me to it) included "Where Oaken Hearts do Gather" by Sarah Pinsker, "Unseelie Brothers, Ltd" by Fran Wilde, "The Ghost Birds" by Karen Russell, "Proof by Induction" by José Pablo Iriarte, "Broad Dutty Water" by Nalo Hopkinson, A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, Perhaps the Stars, by Ada Palmer, "A Master of Djinn" by P. Djèli Clark ... and others that I have forgotten, I am sorry. (I need to think of taking notes.) 

Finally there was a panel on SF, Fantasy, and Horror for People Who Don't Know They Like SF/F/H. The other panelists were R. W. W. Greene, Joshua Bilmes, and Ian Randal Strock. We approached this from two directions -- SF works by writers outside the genre on the one hand, and those works within the genre that non SF readers might be likely to respond to. The first category includes some "usual suspects" -- Nobelists like Ishiguro and Kipling and Saramago and Lessing, and other prominent writers like Nabokov and Kingsley Amis. And David Mitchell and Michael Chabon. Or, of course, Emily St. John Mandel and Station Eleven. From within (to some extent) genre borders we mentioned, I think, Le Guin; and Crowley. I think I brought up Susan Palwick's Flying in Place, which I know can work for non SF readers because my wife loved it. (Same for Karen Joy Fowler.) I know there were many other suggestions, which I just can't recall now.

I attended some other panels as well, of course. Brendan Du Bois, Jim Kelly, and Suzanne Palmer talked interesting about novellas and novelettes, and when (or if) a writer knows she's got a novelette or novella on hand or just a short story. There was a virtual panel on "Impossible Cities", featuring Fran Wilde, Ada Palmer, Mur Lafferty, Greer Gilman, and Kelly Robson. Greg Feeley, Ginjer Buchanan, Bob Devney, and Jim Mann discussed "What Classic SF Got Right and Wrong". Ted Chiang gave a really neat talk on Time Travel, and the differences between historical stories involving time travel and the more contemporary science fictional representations. Claire Cooney had a book launch of her story collection Dark Breakers. I attended one Kaffeeklatsch, by Michael Swanwick, lots of interesting stories.

As ever, however, the best part was meeting friends, old and new, and the various conversations I had. I talked, sometimes at length over a drink, sometimes just briefly, alas, with Greg Feeley (first time we'd met in person), Ken Schneyer, Walter Jon Williams, Ian Randal Strock, Mark Olson, Fred Lerner, Claire Cooney and Carlos Hernandez, Bob Devney, Michael Swanwick, Jim Kelly, Jim Cambias, Mike Allen, Margery Meadows, Mark Pitman, Ted Chiang (first time to meet him), Sally Kobee. I got to talk very briefly to Tamsyn Muir in an autographing line. I was able to (all too briefly) meet Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko, who has published some intriguing short fiction in places like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld, but who I met virtually in another context entirely -- we are both members of an online trivia league, and he coordinated a project to write a long set of questions for the league about SF -- and I was one of the assistants on that project. 

Also of course I bought some cool books in the dealers' room, and I got a bunch of intriguing free books from the free table. I even gave away some books at the free table, but I have to admit, I came home with more books than I got rid of!

Boskone remains a favorite convention of mine, and it was wonderful to be "back in the saddle" again, so to speak.