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.