Saturday, April 30, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Old Bestseller Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

by Rich Horton

Many decades ago, when I was a teen, I read The Warden, the first of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire. If I am to be honest, I remember nothing of that novel except that I enjoyed it -- but never went on to read any more. But in recent years it has become clear to me that I have an affinity for Victorian novels, and it certainly seemed that returning to Trollope was something I ought to do (particularly as several friends recommended him.) And not long ago at a charity book sale I bought an ex-lib copy of Barchester Towers, the direct sequel to The Warden, so I decided that would be my next Trollope. (I have always pronounced his name tra-LOPE, but I read a quip from some English writer, can't remember who, about a friend who would greet him in all innocence saying "I was just up in my room with a Trollope", suggesting a different pronunciation.) 

I've given this review an "Old Bestseller Review" heading, reflecting the original focus of my blog. Was Barchester Towers initially a bestseller? As far as I can determine, probably not, but it sold reasonably well, and, with The Warden, essentially established him as a significant writer. I believe many of his subsequent novels sold very well indeed. I also note that this review is quite long -- probably too long. Perhaps I have been influenced by Trollope's own prolixity! (Barchester Towers is long but not terribly so -- perhaps about 200,000 words, maybe a bit less -- but later novels were often very long indeed.)

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was the son of a barrister, and more distantly descended from landed gentry, and a baronet. (The baronetcy eventually was inherited by Anthony's son Frederic, presumably after the death of some cousins.) His mother was a successful writer (a profession she turned to in part because of her husband's business failures.) Much of the family, but not Anthony, moved to the US for a time, and later (including Anthony) to Belgium. Anthony was educated at "public schools" (Harrow and Winchester) which he hated. He got a position at the Post Office, which eventually led to travel all around Ireland and later England. He began writing shortly before his marriage (to Rose Heseltine, in 1844.) His early novels included a few set in Ireland, and met with little success. (I have read that sales of these books were in the low hundreds.) But The Warden (1855) achieved good notice, and Trollope eventually became very popular. He published some 40 novels, with two main series, the Barchester books and the Palliser books (and the two series are apparently connected) as well as many standalones, perhaps most notably The Way We Live Now (based in part on his unsuccessful run for Parliament.)

Barchester Towers opens with the death of the Bishop of Barchester, Dr. Grantly. His son, the Archdeacon, is widely expected to be named the next Bishop, but there are political reasons that may not occur: the Whigs are now in power, and the Grantlys are Tories, a secular difference which seems also connected to differences within the Church of England, with the Grantlys being more "high church" (or "bells and smells") and the other side more low church, nearly "evangelical". And, indeed, the new Government selects a Dr. Proudie instead of Dr. Grantly. And Dr. Proudie has a formidable -- and very evangelical -- wife. And his wife insists that a certain Obadiah Slope be chosen as the new chaplain. Slope is, besides his somewhat fanatical low church leanings, a very ambitious man, and quite a schemer.

Also involved is Mr. Harding, formerly the Warden of Hiram Hospital -- he was unfairly forced to resign in The Warden. Mr. Harding has two daughter -- Mrs. Grantly, the Archdeacon's wife, and Mrs. Eleanor Bold, who has recently been widowed, and who has a young son. Mr. Harding has some hopes of being restored to his position at the hospital.

All this is presented not just in personal terms, nor in political terms, but in financial terms. In this book, there is a great deal of attention paid to how much money a clergyman is paid (especially inasmuch as the Church of England has recently reformed its payment practices), and to how much a woman might have inherited (which in practical terms means how much a man will take control of upon marriage.) And the plot of the novel turns not just on the maneuverings surrounding the various potentially open livings for the clergy, but on the presumed possible marriage of Eleanor Bold, who, as a young and beautiful widow with a rather decent portion is eligible indeed. 

To summarize very briefly (I hope) we witness the struggle over the Wardenship of the Hospital -- the main claimants being the former Warden Mr. Harding, and the rather needy Mr. Quiverful, who is worthy enough but whose main claim is his need to support his fourteen children -- and the issues here revolve about Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope desiring to have a Sunday School attached to the Hospital, but more significantly Mr. Slope's decision to shift his support to Mr. Harding in the hopes that that will make him a more attractive suitor to Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor Bold. But beyond that living there is the small church of St. Ewold's, to which the Archdeacon attracts the respected Cambridge scholar Mr. Arabin. And finally the Dean of Barchester dies, and immediately it seems Mr. Slope is the leading candidate to replace him.

On the romantic front, the return to Barchester of the prebendary Dr. Vesey Stanhope from Italy muddles the waters. Dr. Stanhope had been drawing a clerical salary but performing no duties while living in Italy. The new Bishop insists he return (or so does Mr. Slope -- and in this instance Mr. Slope is surely in the right). The Stanhope children include a feckless young man, an artist of no renown, who is a thorough spendthrift, and his older sister begins to scheme to marry him to Eleanor. But Mr. Slope also has designs on her. The late entry in the field is Mr. Arabin, who doesn't have the same financial motives (though Trollope reminds us that no matter Mr. Arabin's concerns, a nice fortune will do him no harm) but who clearly begins to form an attachment. The fly in all this ointment is the other Stanhope, Signora Madeline Neroni, a very beautiful but not terribly moral woman, who made a disastrous marriage to an Italian man, and who lost the use of her legs in an accident. She takes an interest in pretty much any man, in this case including Mr. Slope and Mr. Arabin ...

The climax of these events occurs in great part at a party thrown by an aging and rather out of date brother and sister, the Thornes, ostensibly to welcome Mr. Arabin to his new post at St. Ewold's. This takes up several delicious chapters, and we see the entire spectrum of Barchester society, from a Countess down to laborers -- it's a gentle comic masterpiece, and it forms a well constructed resolution to the questions of the plot. I won't detail how that works out (though Trollope on occasion fairly openly tells his readers what to expect) -- but it's quite satisfying. And, indeed, though some people's specific hopes are dashed, it has to be said that all the characters more or less land on their feet.

I found this novel supremely pleasurable to read. Trollope is a very funny writer (in a very quiet way) for one thing. He is quite acute in his depiction of the social order of his time. He is (mostly quite affectionately) observant of the weakness and folly of his characters -- "good" and "bad"; and he loves to present the careful machinations of all the characters leading to unexpected consequences. The only real villain is Mr. Slope, and even he, though oily and unpleasant, is presented as fairly intelligent, and sometimes in the right. (Well, perhaps Vesey Stanhope is a bit of a villain in a less active way -- at any rate, he is morally profoundly negligent.) The prose is Victorian prose at its fullest -- many contemporary readers lose patience with such prose -- the long sentences, the fairly obtrusive narrator, the overt means of characterization (telling instead of showing.) But I love it -- and if you have the taste for that prose, Trollope is a master. Perhaps one of the elements that is the hardest for present day readers is the complete acceptance of the Victorian English view of women's proper place -- in the home, as nurturers. Trollope's women have a great deal of agency, and also intelligence, but they do accept that their role is to be wives and mothers. (To be sure, a woman like Mrs. Proudie uses her position as the Bishop's wife to wield a great deal of power, most certainly over Dr. Proudie as well as more widely in the diocese.)

Finally -- a note, maybe a question. The novel has very many characters who are clergymen, and they have a dizzying array of titles. Many I know well: Archbishop, Bishop, Vicar, chaplain, curate. Others I recognize but can't quite place in the hierarchy: Archdeacon, Warden, Canon, Dean. Some I really don't know at all, like precentor and prebendary. Does anyone know more detail about this?

And one small additional note -- the previous Victorian novel I read is Vanity Fair, from one decade earlier. It's a very different novel in tone, of course -- but I did detect some parallels between the virtuous (but very foolish) Amelia Sedley and the virtuous (and actually fairly intelligent) Eleanor Bold. (Mostly their perhaps excessive devotion to their less than perfect -- and dead -- husbands, and their deep love for their sons. Also, more trivially, they are both widows who eventually remarry.)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi

a review by Rich Horton

Here is a novel that wears its time of writing on its sleeve.The Kaiju Preservation Society opens in early 2020, just as the pandemic is staring. Jamie Gray is working for a food delivery service, and sees a great opportunity for his company -- perceiving that the market for delivered meals is about to explode, Jame is eager to present this dea to the CEO -- only to be fired ... 

Let's pull back a bit. John Scalzi needs little introduction -- he's been writing vary enjoyable SF novels for nearly two decades. He's won a Campbell, a Locus, a Dragon, and a couple of Hugos. And somehow he became a lightning rod for the Sad Puppies despite, as far as I can tell, writing EXACTLY the sort of old-fashioned, plot and adventure and cool SF idea-centered stuff they claimed to want! Well, to use an appropriate word, whatever! I like his stuff, and I read it regularly, and so I was happy when our book club chose his brand new novel for our next read. (In this case, I bought the novel through Audible, so I listened to it rather than reading it. The reader, who did a fine job, is Wil Wheaton.)

To continue -- Jamie is humiliatingly forced to accept a gig job workiing for the same company, delivering meals. And in the process Jamie meets a guy from college, a guy who is impressed with Jamie's knowledge of SF (knowledge that almost led to a Ph. D.) And when it becomes clear that Jamie is facing impossible financial pressures due to a) not having his old job; and b) the pandemic; this guy, Tom, offers Jamie a job, for a group called the KPS. A really really well-paying job, but with a catch -- it's in a remote area, out of reach of connection to cell networks, and potentially living a little rough. But, hey, what's the alternative? And the job seems perhaps to have some connection to Jamie's SF knowledge?

Soon Jamie is in Greenland, still wondering what's going on. We can guess, of course, given the title of the novel. And, indeed, KPS stands for Kaiju Preservation Society, and once in Greenland they travel to a secret base, and go through a portal into an alternate Earth. An Earth with conditions that allow for the existence of 100 meter tall monsters. (They are powered by biological nuclear reactors!) Jamie's job is to "lift things" (and the novel has a lot of fun with that.) Everyone else is a Ph. D., including the other newbies, with whom Jamie soon becomes very friendly. 

The first large chunk of the novel is all about explaining what's going on, which is pretty fun -- wildly improbable but clever rationalizations of the Kaiju biology, amusing training sequences, references to a certain famous Kaiju which crossed over to our Earth near Japan thanks to a nuclear explosion (nuclear explosions thin the barrier between worlds ...) There's a lot of camaradie between the various KPS members -- they are a genuninely nice bunch. The eventual plot concerns first an effort to get a pair of Kaiju to breed, and second, a job Jamie is given to shepherd various visitors -- government official, military, scientific higher ups, and, of course, corporate sponsors -- around the base -- it seems that a chance to see real Kaiju is quite the lure. The actual conflict comes fairly late, involving an attempt to bring a Kaiju to our Earth to harvest some genetic material ... which turns out to be a really bad idea.

The novel is very light (though some terrible things happen) and it's very enjoyable. Scalzi's narrative voice is as usual delightful. A lot of it doesn't make a ton of sense, but it really doesn't have to -- the attempts to have it make SF sense are entertaining anyway, and we're not really expected to believe it. An afterword explains the genesis of the novel -- the stress of the pandemic, not to mention a maybe Covid maybe not illness, made it impossible for Scalzi to finish the more serious novel he had planned. He needed relief -- and the idea for this novel came to him, and he finished it in record time (by my lights -- maybe it's normal for Scalzi.) He described it as a "pop song", which seems entirely correct.

I liked it -- it's short and swift and fun. I do have one quibble, and it's a quibble I have about a lot of recent fiction -- the villain is a maximally, cartoonishly, evil corporation. Evil corporations are the lazy default villains these days, and certainly you can find a lot to complain about in corporate actions. But what this corporation gets up to is pretty extreme. And -- the novel takes on the stresses of the pandemic and such nicely enough. But in 2022 we have additional stresses, and a reminder that for real maximal evil a consciousless autocrat of a nation state is a much better candidate than a mere profit hungry corporation. 

[Note -- I've modified my original review, thanks to a hint from John Scalzi's editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. I had assumed Jamie Gray was male -- but the novel carefully does not specifiy. Indeed, the other characters are referred to as he, she, and in one case they -- but we never learn Jamie's pronouns. This is, I suspect, easier to do in a first person narrative! It was a bit tricky for me to work around all the "he"s in my original draft without using "they".

I will offer a couple of defenses. The first is simple -- I did not read the novel, I listened to it. And the narrator, Will Wheaton, is male. And for a first person narrative, it's pretty natural to assign the narrator's gender to the first person character. Beyond that I'll suggest that there is one ambiguous marker that the Jamie might be male -- his job is to "lift things", and lifting things implies upper body strength, which is unevenly distributed between males and females. That said, the other person in the novel whose job is to "lift things" is explicitly female. The novel features no romantic subplots, and indeed I spent a tiny amount of time wondering whether or not Jamie is gay or straight -- there is no evidence either way (that I detected.)]

My Black Gate Essay Series

Over the past couple of years I've written several essays -- six for far -- for Black Gate, in each case taking a fairly close look at a story (or a few stories, or a poem) that I either particularly like or find particularly interesting. I'm quite proud of these posts, so I'm putting a link to them here in my blog.

"The Star Pit", by Samuel R. Delany;

Three Stories by Idris Seabright;

"Winter Solstice, Camelot Station", by John M. Ford;

"It Opens the Sky", by Theodore Sturgeon;

"Winter's King", by Ursula K. Le Guin;

"The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", by James Tiptree, Jr.;

I note that above my links just mention the title of the stories under consideration, but Black Gate editor John O'Neill add more interesting titles to the essays, and I particularly liked his title for the most recent one, about Tiptree: Still Not Telling Us

Monday, April 18, 2022

Table of Contents: Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2021 edition (stories from 2020)

Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2021 edition

edited by Rich Horton

(stories from 2020)

My best of the year anthology for 2021 has been much delayed, for reasons mostly linked to the pandemic, including difficulty getting a slot at printers. (And other issues!) But at last I have a TOC nearly ready. We're holding open one slot for one more potential story ... hoping to hear from the author soon. But I figured it was time to post the list. It's been fun going through these stories again, and realizing how good they are, and how worthy of whatever exposure they can get.

This list is in alphabetical order by author.

Nadia Afifi, "The Bahrain Underground Bazaar", (F&SF, 11-12/20)

Rebecca Campbell, "An Important Failure", (Clarkesworld, 8/20)

Leah Cypess, "Stepsister", (F&SF, 5-6/20)

Andy Dudak, "Songs of Activation", (Clarkesworld, 12/20)

Bishop Garrison, "Silver Door Diner", (FIYAH, Autumn/20)

A. T. Greenblatt, "Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super", (Uncanny, 5-6/20)

Amanda Hollander, "A Feast of Butterflies", (F&SF, 3-3/20)

T. L. Huchu, "Egoli", (Africanfuturism)

John Kessel, "Spirit Level", (F&SF, 7-8/20)

Naomi Kritzer, "Little Free Library", (, 4/8/20)

Sarah Langan, "You Have the Prettiest Mask", (LCRW, 8/20)

P. H. Lee, "The Garden Where No One Ever Goes", (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 12/3/20)

Yoon Ha Lee, "Beyond the Dragon's Gate" (, 5/20/20)

Marissa Lingen, "The Past, Like a River in Flood", (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 8/27/20)

Ken Liu, "50 Things Every AI Working With Humans Should Know", (Uncanny, 11-12/20)

Rati Mehrotra, "Magnificent Maurice or the Flowers of Immortality", (Lightspeed, 11/20)

Annalee Newitz, "The Monogamy Hormone", (Entanglements)

Alec Nevala-Lee, "Retention", (Analog, 7-8/20)

Sarah Pinsker, "Two Truths and a Lie", (, 6-17/20)

Vina Jie-Min Prasad, "A Guide for Working Breeds", (Made to Order)

Mercurio D. Rivera, "Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars", (Asimov’s, 7-8/20)

Benjamin Rosenbaum, "Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World", (Asimov’s, 3-4/20)

Sofia Samatar, "The Moon Fairy", (Conjunctions #74)

Ken Schneyer, "Laws of Impermanence", (Uncanny, 9-10/20)

Alexandra Seidel, "Lovers on a Bridge, (Past Tense)

Michael Swanwick, "The Dragon Slayer", (The Book of Dragons)

Tade Thompson, "Thirty-Three", (Avatars, Inc.)

Ian Tregillis, "When God Sits in Your Lap". (Asimov’s, 9-10/20)

Eugenia Triantafyllou, "Those We Serve", (Interzone, 5-6/20)

Tlotlo Tsamaase,"Behind Our Irises", (Africanfuturism)

James Van Pelt, "Minerva Girls", (Analog, 9-10/20)

Aliya Whiteley, "Fog and Pearls at the King's Cross Junction", (London Centric)

Jessica P. Wick, "An Unkindness", (The Sinister Quartet)

John Wiswell, "Open House on Haunted Hill", (Diabolical Plots, 6/20)

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Review: The Exile Waiting, by Vonda N. McIntyre

Review: The Exile Waiting, by Vonda N. McIntyre

a review by Rich Horton

Vonda N. McIntyre was born in 1948 in Louisville, and died, only 70 years old, in 2019. She began publishing in 1970 with "Breaking Point", in Venture (the second iteration of a short-lived (both times) companion to F&SF), and in 1973 published "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" in Analog -- which won the Nebula for Best Novelette. It became her second novel, Dreamsnake, and that won both the Nebula and Hugo. She published several more generally well-received novels through 1997, when The Moon and the Sun appeared, and won her another Nebula. But that was her last novel, and she published only about a half-dozen further short stories in the couple of decades before her death. (I reprinted her last story, "Little Sisters", in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2016 Edition.) I don't know wny she mostly stopped writing (or selling) -- she was a first rate writer. (A good portion of her output was media tie-ins, also, and her Star Trek novels are quite well regarded.)

So, I mentioned her second novel, and some later ones, but what of her first novel? This was The Exile Waiting, from 1975. Its first appearance was actually the Science Fiction Book Club edition. I bought the paperback when it appeared -- my notes in the book say I got it from Waldenbooks in Fox Valley Mall (a couple of miles from my house) in April 1976. I read it and liked it a good deal. And so I was happy to be pressed to reread it when we chose it for the book club that Mark Tiedemann runs ...

And, you know, it holds up. On rereading I felt it very clearly a first novel, with some of the problems of many first novels, but lots of the exuberance too. Like many first novels there is a sense that the author threw in a few too many ideas, and that the structure (perhaps especially at the beginning) is a bit loose ... but in the end it's very enjoyable and quite moving.

The book is set on earth (uncapitalized, oddly, though it is clearly meant to be our Earth) a long time in the future, after a nuclear war. As such, it's a post-Holocaust novel -- Mark Tiedemann pointed out that this was rather late for the at one time extremely common trope of setting a story in the distant aftermath of a nuclear war. Mischa is an adolescent girl (probably about 14 ... but her age doesn't come through very well) living in a place called Center, almost a hive for the people living in the otherwise blasted wasteland. She is a thief, as was her now drug-addicted and dying older brother Chris. She also has a power, as with the others in her family -- sort of an empathic/near telepathic ability to sense others' minds. This is a decidedly mixed blessing, especially as her much less mentally functional younger sister Gemmi has such a strong ability that she can compel Mischa to come to her -- which she does when their abusive uncle forces her -- mainly to get money. Mischa's dream is to escape to the "Sphere" -- that is, the relatively near star systems that humans have colonized; and to bring Chris with her in hope of a cure for his addiction (presumably, he started using the drugs to ecape Gemmi's pull.) And it becomes clear to her that her only shot is to find a way to get to the Palace, and to convince the aristocrats there to give her a job on a spaceship.

There are two other central characters. Jan Hiraku is a young man who has promised to bring his blind old friend back to earth for burial, and he has gotten passage on a starship. The starship is crewed by what seem a group of raiders, led by two curiously linked men who call themselves Subone and Subtwo. They were raised together as part of an experiment intended to make them mentally linked, and having escaped that situation they are beginning to establish independent personalities. (Their backstory is detailed in McIntyre's short story from the Delany/Hacker anthology Quark/4, "Cages", which I understand is included in the recent rerelease of The Exile Waiting (from Handheld Press in 2019).)

So -- Jan, unconnected with the raiders, serves as sort of an outside observer/narrator, though eventually he becomes a friend and mentor to Mischa. Mischa's attempt to infiltrate the Palace fails and she is whipped for it. But more or less simultaneously, the raiders' ship lands nearby, in storm season when no ships come -- the combined abilities of Subone and Subtwo make this possible. They arrive at the Palace, evidently intending to take over -- but are suborned, more or less, by the decadence and indifference of the ruling group. Meanwhile Subtwo is trying to separate from the more brutish and immoral Subone, so while Subone appears to enjoy being assimilated into the decadent life of the Place, Subtwo is disgusted by the slave culture revealed to him. He falls for Madame, the slave who serves as housekeeper to the ruler, and tries to arrange her freedom, while planning to leave with his ship as soon as possible. Jan and he rescue Mischa, and somewhat fortuitously begin to train her, and discover that she is a mathematical genius. (This is a bit of tired cliche, one of the "first novel" faults.) Plans for Jan, Subtwo, Madame, Mischa, and Chris to escape back to the Sphere seem well on the way, until Mischa's unseverable connections to her family intervene -- and Subone's cruel reaction to the presence of Chris in their quarters drives a crisis.

Jan and Mischa are forced to escape underground after attacking Subone in trying to rescue Chris. They encounter a group of mutated humans, cast out because of the old tradition of post nuclear societies trying to control mutations. Meanwhile Subone and Subtwo are chasing them -- Subone compelling his "pseudosib" to help get revenge on Mischa for attacking him. Mischa -- again quite coincidentally -- meets one of her highly mutated brothers ... Well, the natural result ensues -- with the mutants' help they escape back to Central, and in the process foment a rebellion that should lead to better treatment for the mutants, and also freedom for the slaves. And Subtwo finally manages to escape Subone's influence and their escape to the Sphere becomes a reality.

Told as baldly as I've stated it this final development seems a contrived and only too familiar (and too easy) resolution -- and it is, I suupose, except McIntyre's writing is very effective, and it's exciting, and quite moving. It's really a case of a first novelist's talent winning over her inexperience, I think. I liked the characters, and I wanted them to win. I'd actually have liked to see more stories in that future -- in the Sphere, mainly, and perhaps following Mischa's life. Apparently Dreamsnake is set on the same future ruined earth -- but we don't really see the Sphere in that book. (It's not clear to me whether the action of Dreamsnake is set prior to The Exile Waiting, after it, or at a roughly parallel time but different place on earth.) 

It is nice, I think, to return to a novel you remember enjoying 45+ years ago, and to find that it pretty much holds up! That doesn't always happen, but it did in this case.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Review: Murder in Millennium VI, by Curme Gray

Review: Murder in Millennium VI, by Curme Gray

a review by Rich Horton

This novel, published in 1951 by the important early SF book publisher Shasta, very quickly established a reputation as a nearly incomprehensible novel -- incomprehensible because it explains almost nothing about its future -- the intent is to be read as a comtemporary work,set in "Millennium VI", and as such not to describe thimgs that would be common knowledge to its supposed readership. Over the decades it's become sort of a talisman -- "Read this and marvel at how inpenetrable it is!" As such I've known for years that eventually I'd try to read it, and the time finally came. Short version -- it's at times difficult, a bit dizzying, but the basics are really pretty readily worked out. It's a decidedly interesting experiment, and with additional editorial input, it could have been something really special. It falls short, alas, but I still think it's worth reading.

The book has only been reprinted once, in 1952, as part of an omnibus edition offered by the Unicorn Mystery Book Club. The other books in that omnibus were When Dorinda Dances, by Brett Halliday (best known for the Mike Shayne mysteries); The Far Cry, by Fredric Brown; and The Virgin Huntress, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. I think it's fair to say -- even wholly ignorant, as I am, of the Halliday novel -- that that is a pretty damn impressive omnibus, even only considering the Brown and Holding novels. 

Curme Gray himself was for a long time -- still is, to some extent -- a mysterious figure. But in recent years some details have been tracked down, even a picture. (The picture attached was found by Paul di Filippo from a Battle Creek, MI, newspaper, accompanying an advertisement for a book signing -- evidently at the time this book was published Gray lived in Battle Creek.)  He was born in Indiana in 1910. His father or grandfather appears to have been in the shoe businees. By 1940 he was living in Cicero*, IL, a suburb of Chicago, and had a wife named Madeline. By the 1960s he seems to have been in Denver, and involved in local theater. But his interest in theater goes much farther back: there are apparently at least two plays copywrighted in his name. from around 1940, when he was in Illinois. He died in 1980. 

(*My high school wrestling coach was from Cicero. At a guess he was not too much younger than Gray -- maybe he knew him?)

So what's up with this book? It opens with the scene of a woman, having just awakened, heading to meet her mother, but colliding with her much smaller father (Alec), and rebuking him. The mother, Wilmot, and the daughter, Hilda, converse briefly, first by voice, then by "telement", about their coming trip to see the Matriarch, and Hilda's desire for a newly created position as the Matriarch's secretary, and her anger that her twin brother Victor will also meet the Matriarch and apply for the new position -- even though males are ineligible. The narrative switches to first person -- Victor has been monitoring their conversation, by both "telepathy" and "clairvoyance". Victor and Alec speak, and we learn that Alec owns three "records" from Ancient History. It seems Alec is fascinated by that time period, and even has learned to read the records, which are described strangely -- but in a way so that we recognize them as printed books. No one (except Victor and Alec) seems to read -- everything transmitted via telement is preserved in Archival Telement, or AT. Alec's three books are called Palmer's Method, Hobbies, and Crime, a History. Victor, using what he learned from Palmer's Method, is making his own record, by cutting up pieces of cloth and marking them. In this diary he preserves things he learns, and thinks, that will not be part of AT -- including his somewhat clandestine love affair with a woman named Barbara Porter. (Romantic love, we learn -- like death -- is a forgotten thing in this future.)

I've gone into greater detail than I normally would partly because the strangeness of the future needs more description than in many books. As we read further -- though much of this on a second reading is already indicated in the first chapter -- we learn that this is set 6000 years or so from now. The world is ruled by a Matriarchy. There is only one race (apparently descended from Asians though it could be just a future mix.) Women are significantly larger than men. Neither sex has secondary sexual characteristics -- indeed, both are bald. These characteristics seem to be maintained partly by selective breeding. Most communication is by telepathy -- something like personal radio. Clairvoyance seems to be a way of seeing what is happening elsewhere. (We learn later of private sorts of telepathy, and of a special form of telement called communion, in which perhaps thoughts are directly shared.) There is no crime, and no death. There are a few different varieties of women -- notably Menics (menial workers) and Clerics, of higher rank. Men, who do not work, seem either to be essentially house-husbands, or to reside forever in the "Stud". The extended lifespans also mean that maturity is not attained until the age of nearly one hundred.

The meeting with the Matriarch is complicated, because Barbara Porter is there as well, and it becomes clear that everyone with an audience with the Matriarch is applying for the same newly created position of secretary. The job should be Hilda's, because Victor is a male, and Barbara is of lower status (as Wilmot is the second most powerful woman in the Matriarchy.) Indeed, we now learn, Barbara is a highly unusual woman -- she has breasts, and is smaller than most women. (She even uses lipstick, it seems!) But to Victor's dismay, Barbara has rejected him for another male. And, indeed, Barbara and Victor's association was highly irregular -- females are supposed to choose males at the Stud. (It is never made terribly clear exactly what goes on at the the Stud.) 

Much of this becomes somewhat irrelevant when, just as the audience with the Matriarch is supposed to commence, it is clear that she is acting very oddly. Indeed, Alec and Victor rush forward -- she seems to be asleep! But, no -- she is not asleep, she is dead. And that is impossible, for no one dies! (This is one reason Barbara and Hilda, who are one hundred years old, have not found a position.) After much divagation, it is determined that the Matriarch has been murdered -- but by whom? It seems to be a locked room mystery.

The main action of the novel concerns the untangling of the mystery, of course. Alec is the first suspect, and he is soon found dead -- by suicide? Is this a confession? The question of motive arises -- but there are many plausble motives. Alec wanted, we learn, to restore the historical Patriarchy. Hilda wanted the secretary job that she felt was hers by right. Wilmot had long coveted the (elective) position of Matriarch. Barbara Porter's Aunt Gertrude resents the power held by both the Matriarch and Wilmot. Victor is suspect because he's Alec's son, and because of his irregularities. The question of method revolves around scissors -- and we know that Victor has a pair. But so, it appears, did Hilda. And perhaps the scissors are just a blind alley -- there are other means of murder. Other mysteries arise -- for death is not really wholly abolished, but people tend to forget it. It turns out that a past disaster (a plane crash) wiped out everyone in Alec's family. But no one (besides Alec) remembers this.

The solution (solutions?) to the murder mystery come in a dizzying sequence, with every one of the main characters at one time identified as the murderer. The final resolution is kind of neat (turning on an aspect of future technology) -- and yet, to my mind, it remains a bit ambiguous. (In a good way, I'd say.) The other outward plot element is the romance (?) between Victor and Barbara -- Barbara seems to run hot and cold, and Victor -- he's determined to marry Barbara, but hardly -- chivalrous? All in all, the sexual poltics of this book are decidedly retro -- arguably that's part of the theme, to be sure. But it can be hard to take.

In a way, though, these aspects aren't what's most interesting about Murder in Millennium VI. Decoding the true nature of this future is what involves the reader (in 1951 as much as in 2022, I think.) The social and sexual organization is central -- looked at naively it seems to be about a cyclical change from Patriarchy to Matriarchy and back again to Patriarchy -- but I think perhaps the resolution suggests an evolution to a more equitable arrangement. (This is not much addressed, though.) Another question revolves around death -- how has it been (mostly) eliminated in Millennium VI, and is its (potential) restoration a good thing? There are a host of technical issues that are described but never discussed -- people seem almost never to be outside, for example; or, what really goes on in the Stud? or how does the transportation work? or what are the homes really like? with the strange lighting? etc. etc.

The overall affect is effectively weird, if not quite convincing. The novel works in that sense. But as I hinted at the top, some of the confusion may be due more to ineffective writing -- and I think some hard editorial work might have resolved some of that. And to be honest the overall theme, especially the Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy aspect, and the general depiction of gender relations, is retro in a bad way, even rather unpleasant. This future doesn't seem a future we're headed to, and the questions the book poses about this future aren't really sensible, in the end. But for all that, I'm glad I read it It's an intriguing and quite different imaginative product. And it's not all that long! So -- worth a read if you can find a copy, and a reprint might be worthwhile (perhaps attached to some critical analysis.)