Friday, June 2, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (with Auguste Maquet)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the most famous 19th Century novels, and has never stopped being read, and adapted. The central story has been the basis for any number of works, including one of the greatest SF novels of all time: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. I myself have known the vague outline of the story for a long time, partly due to osmosis, partly due to such fractional adaptions as the Mr. Magoo cartoon version. I found a free audiobook version, from Librivox, and figured it would be a good thing to listen to for the next 54 hours of driving! It's read by David Clarke, and he does an excellent job, if on occasion his accents get a touch hammy. (That said, his versions of the Count's many voices are very nice.) I should mention that I complained about the last Librivox audiobook I tried, because the narration was pretty amateurish. This is much much better. (I will note that there's at least one other Librivox reading of The Count of Monte Cristo, and the reviews of it suggest that it is not nearly as good as the one I've read.) I don't know which translation Clarke is reading, but I also have the 2003 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robin Buss. I believe the Buss translation is better than the one Clarke is reading, but that one is not bad. (I suspect it may be the earliest English translation, from 1846; or one of the later translations that were largely based on that one, such as an 1894 version that Robin Buss mentions a few times in his introduction.)

Alexandre Dumas was born in Picardy in 1802. His father was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a Marquis and an enslaved woman. His mother was an innkeeper's daughter. Dumas was his grandmother's family name, adopted by Alexandre's father after a break with his noble father. Alexandre's father was a successful general under Napoleon, but died of cancer in 1806. Dumas's family connections got him a decent position with Louis-Philippe, future King of France. Dumas soon began writing articles and then plays, and after a couple of successes became a full-time writer, and turned to novels. His most significant works appeared in quick succession between 1844 and 1847: The Three Musketeers and its sequels; The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas died in 1870. His son, also named Alexandre, also illegitimate (the elder Dumas had multiple marriages and many affairs) became a successful writer as well, by far best remembered for La Dame Aux Camellias, the source material for Verdi's La Traviata, one of the greatest operas of all time. The father is often styled Alexandre Dumas père, the son Dumas fils

I have above given co-credit to August Maquet. Dumas, incredibly prolific, ran a sort of fiction factory, employing other writers to plot his books and to research them. It does appear that Dumas, in most of the books, did the bulk of the page by page writing. But Maquet, his most common assistant, eventually sued him for credit, and while Maquet did not get credit, he did get a considerable financial settlement. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Buss suggests that it was Maquet who insisted on adding the early chapters in which Edmond Dantès is framed and thrown in jail.

So, what to say about the story itself? Any kind of detailed plot summary seems silly -- to say too much might give away some of the pleasure, and would take a while -- it's a long book. And most everyone knows the basics. I'll quickly summarize them anyway. The novel tells of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor just returned from a voyage on which his Captain died, leaving him in charge. He is chosen by his employer to take the permanent position of Captain -- and thus he can marry his beloved, the Catalan girl Mercédès. But the jealousy of another Catalan, Fernand, who loves Mercédès, plus that of Danglars, supercargo on his ship, who dislikes Edmond, leads to them accusing him of Bonapartist sympathies. (This part is set in 1815, just as Bonaparte is leaving Elba for his last "100 days".) Villefort, the prosecutor in charge of the resulting case, realizes that Dantès is innocent but has him imprisoned in the Chateau D'If anyway, as it will benefit his political advancement and also because his own father is a Bonapartist.

Dantès remains in jail for 14 years, and befriends another prisoner, the mad monk Faria, who, over many years, gives him a remarkable education, and also reveals the location of a fantastic treasure, on the island of Monte Cristo. Dantès finally escapes (in a wonderful sequence), and manages to locate the treasure ... and, nine years later, he emerges, first in Rome, then in Paris, as the Count of Monte Cristo. In the mean time, he has learned, his enemies have reached high positions (partly through additional corrupt actions): Villefort is the Crown Prosecutor, Fernand has become the Comte de Morcerf, and Danglars is now a Baron. The Count makes a sensation, partly because of his money, partly his mystery. But his goal is revenge on those who betrayed him -- and all three of the main villains begin to see their luck strangely turn ...

Well, that's rather skeletal, and it misses a lot. But that's OK! The fun is in the discovering. I will mention as many other key characters as I can: Maximilien Morrel, son of M. Morrel who owned the ship Edmond worked on; Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand; Franz d'Epinay, a close friend of Albert's; Haydée, a beautiful young Greek-Albanian woman, the companion or slave of the Count of Monte Cristo (Haydée's back story (which is loosely historically based) is central to the book, but I'll leave it for the reader to learn); Valentine de Villefort, the daughter of M. de Villefort by his first wife; Mme. de Villefort, Villefort's sinister second wife; Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of one of Dantès' betrayers, and a rather sympathetically portrayed Lesbian (some people nowadays suggest she is a trans man) who is unwillingly supposed to marry Albert; Caderousse, a baker and neighbor of Edmond's father, who by inaction abets Fernand and Danglars' plot against Edmond, and whose greed sends him on the path to ruin; Luigi Vampa, a Roman bandit; Mme. Danglars, a beauty who married Danglars for his money, and who has carried on serial affairs, including one with M. de Villefort which leads in the end to tragedy; Bertuccio, the Count's faithful Corsican servant, who coincidentally is entangled with the lives of Villefort and Danglars and thus the Count himself (though, as becomes clear, almost every seeming coincidence in the novel is the result of the Count's knowledge and planning); Benedetto, an habitual criminal who the Count hires to portray an Italian nobleman as part of his plans of revenge; and Noirtier, M. de Villefort's father, who ends his life horrifyingly paralyzed, with only his granddaughter Valentine to care for him.

This list of characters, most of whose stories are significantly and entertainingly elaborated, is one reason the novel is so long -- and also never boring. And there are many more minor characters -- the newspaperman Beauchamp, Caderousse's sickly and shrewish wife La Carconte, Major Cavalcanti, Maximilien Morrel's sister Julie and her husband Emmanuel, the Count's mute Nubian servant Ali, to say nothing of such pivotal but secretive people as the English Lord Willmore and the Italian cleric Abbé Busoni; and even such minor characters as the telegraph operator who appears only in the chapter with the delightful title "How to Rescue a Gardener from the Dormice who are Eating his Peaches".

The novel is well-written if not beautifully so (as always, I should caution that I am basing such an evaluation on the translation(s) I read and heard.) Dumas was a very witty writer. The characters are nicely limned, if (as Buss argues, and I agree) it is somewhat difficult to square the early depictions of Fernand and Danglars with their later incarnations as the Comte de Morcerf and the Baron Danglars. It is clearly a work of popular fiction in that the plot is far from realistic -- that said, the depictions of 1830s Paris and Rome seem pretty solid (and Dumas sprinkles in mentions of things like a couple of his favorite inns and hotels.) And for all the unrealism of the plot, and the near magical nature of the Count's powers and his fortune, the central themes: corruption, vengeance, and the ultimate dangers of living for vengeance (especially with regards to collateral damage) -- all leading to a paean to forgiveness -- are quite powerful.

The bottom line is simple: this novel has been extremely popular since it first appeared in 1844. And it wholly deserves this -- it is glorious, sometimes delirious, fun. It is first of all entertainment, but entertainment with some depth behind it. It is a very long novel -- roughly half a million words -- but always interesting, never a slog. And you know what -- a long TV adaptation -- in a dozen or twenty hour long episodes, say -- could be really wonderful. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Another Victorian Novel: Orthodox, by Dorothea Gerard

Review: Orthodox, by Dorothea Gerard

by Rich Horton

I found this slim novel at the St. Louis County Book Fair. It is a British Library facsimile reprint of the first edition, from Longman's, Green and Co., in 1888. I could not resist a Victorian novel by a woman of whom I had never heard. And it is quite short (not quite 40,000 words) so it wouldn't take up much of my time anyway.

Dorothea Gerard was born in Scotland in 1855. Her father was a Colonel, and maternal grandfather a somewhat notable inventor, Sir John Robison. She spent several years in Austria as a child, and upon her mother's death in 1870, moved there again to live with her sister, who had married a Polish cavalry officer. The two sisters began collaborating on novels in 1877, and had some success with Reata and The Waters of Hercules and other books, written as by "E. D. Gerard". (Emily also published non-fiction, notably a couple of books about Transylvania, and its legends, which are said to have inspired Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula.) Dorothea also married a military man, an Austrian officer who eventually became a Major General, and was given the title "Longard de Longgarde", so that some of Dorothea's later novels were published as by "Dorothea Longard de Longgarde". 

Dorothea largely stopped collaborating with her sister upon her marriage; and she was a very prolific author in her own right. Her novels were often, not surprisingly, set in Eastern Europe where she lived; though she always wrote in English. According to Wikipedia, her later books often were published by the German firm Tauchnitz, and marketed to English travelers and expatriates. She died in 1915, having lived in seclusion for many years after the death of her husband and her sister.

Her novels often seem to have been romances, apparently set among the Eastern European upper classes. She was politically conservative, but had a reputation for addressing controversial subjects, in particular prejudices across divides of class, nationality, and ethnicity, and also antisemitism. This is interesting in the context of the novel at hand.

Orthodox opens "I propose to tell the story of how my friend and comrade, Rudolph von Ortenegg, fell into the hands of the Jews ..." This did not seem terribly promising. The narrator is a 23 year old Polish officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, stationed in Poland. His friend Rudolph is the only son of an old German aristocrat, and he grew up in near isolation, so his social skills are minimal, and he has some ideas that the narrator thinks are foolish. Among these is disgust at the mistreatment of the local Jews -- which disgust the narrator finds shocking, for in his view why shouldn't one treat vermin like vermin.

Things get worse when, by chance, they encounter an astonishingly beautiful young Jewish woman, Salome. Before long Rudolph is smitten, and so too, it seems, is Salome. Against his friend's advice, Rudolph and Salome begin to plot a way for them to marry -- which of course will involve Salome converting to Catholicism. Naturally her family are aghast at the thought of this (and so too will Rudolph's father be) -- their only ally is Salome's spunky younger sister Surchen. But Rudolph manages to spirit Salome away to a nearby convent. All seems to be going well -- but Salome's father has different plans.

As I've described this, it seems nice enough, and arguably a somewhat "anti-antisemitism" book. But -- it's not, really. (Maybe it is relative to many of Gerard's contemporaries, I suppose.) Although Rudolph is quite sincere in his belief that the abusive behavior of the Polish Christians towards Jews is terrible, his primary motive for improving their lot is to convert them. And the book itself -- and its narrator -- lean in a wholly unchallenged way fully into the most offensive descriptions of the Jewish characters. They are all money grubbers, and sinisterly clever, and dishonest. Salome's sister Surchen is perhaps the most appealing character in the book -- she is as I said spunky, and quite intelligent -- but she is depicted as doing everything she does to make a bit of money. There are constant slurs as to hygiene and so on; and even the praise of some of them (for example, of Salome's beauty) is heavily tinged with Orientalist cliches. Add to that the character of Salome herself -- she is weak and really sort of a cipher -- Rudolph appears to care only about her looks. I don't know how accurate Gerard's depiction of Orthodox Jewish customs in Poland at the time is -- perhaps it is quite accurate, and as such the women seem quite oppressed -- only, I think the same could likely be said about Christian women in Poland in that era.

All in all, not a book I can recommend. I will say that Gerard could write, and with considerable wit. I dare say some of her other novels might be more palatable, but this one was -- well, offensive is the main thing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Granger's Crossing, by Mark W. Tiedemann

Granger's Crossing

a novel by Mark W. Tiedemann

Blank Slate Press (an Imprint of Amphorae Publishing), St. Louis, 2023, Trade Paperback, 376 pages, $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-943075-75-1

a review by Rich Horton

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louisan, a photographer and was a long-time bookseller at Left Bank Books. He has published ten science fiction novels and dozens of short stories. Granger's Crossing is his first venture into historical fiction. (He's also a friend of mine of long standing, and the leader of an SF book club in which I participate.)

Granger is introduced as a Lieutenant in the Continental Army in 1780, having crossed into St. Louis -- then a Spanish territory -- to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Ham Inwood, who had come to a certain Don Diego Cortez's property to investigate reports of a man hiding out there. What Granger finds is his friend's murdered body, and some further mysteries involving Cortez's horses, his brother, and some gold. Back in St. Louis after another man is shot, Granger meets an intriguing married woman named Martine, and vows to return -- either to solve his friend's murder, or to see if there's a future with Martine. 

But the War intervenes, and it is not until it is over, and the United States are officially independent, that Granger can return. He sets up a business in Cahokia, and before long is dealing in St. Louis. He tries to reconnect wtih the now widowed Martine, but she is acting oddly distant. His attempts to investigate Granger’s friend's murder meets resistance, suggestions he should go back East, and even threats. Don Diego Cortez's fiancée arrives from Spain, and questions arise about Diego's identity -- could he really be his twin brother instead?

Granger -- still a young and somewhat callow man -- realizes he needs to make some decisions. He becomes a Spanish citizen so he can move to the St. Louis side of the river. He lets Martine know of his interest in her, even as she is being courted by another man, and as she is about to lose her home, as her husband's sons from a previous marriage will get her property. Granger ends up buying Martine's house, but realizes Martine needs space to make her decisions. And Granger doubles down on the search for the reasons for Ham's murder.

This is a compelling novel, mixing a fascinating historical background that is not widely known --St. Louis under Spanish rule -- even to a long-time St. Louisan like me. There are a couple of interesting mysteries to resolve, and an alluring romance. St. Louisans will recognize a number of names: Gratiot, Chouteau, Cerré, etc; and some of the geography, including nods to towns like Cahokia and Cape Girardeau. I was invested in Granger's quests -- for Martine, and for Ham's murderer; and the solutions are satisfying. This is a novel about American history, and St. Louis history, that fascinates on those grounds, and Granger's personal story is also involving.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Resurrected Review: Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Here's another review resurrected from my old website and the SFF Net newsgroups. This one appeared back in 2004.

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Eos, New York, NY, September 2003, 464 pages, Hardcover, US$24.95, ISBN:0-380-97902-0
a review by Rich Horton

Paladin of Souls is Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novel, her third fantasy, and a fairly direct sequel to The Curse of Chalion. It seems that Bujold's energies are now focussed on her fantasy secondary world, centered on the Royacy of Chalion, which has certain similarities to Renaissance era Iberia. At any rate, I understand that her next novel will be another Chalionese book. This seems a good choice -- I liked both The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls better than her most recent Vorkosigan book, Diplomatic Immunity.

Paladin of Souls is the story of the Dowager Royina Ista of Chalion, mother of the new Royina Iselle, and widow of the late, cursed Roya Ias. The Curse of Chalion covered the events leading to the lifting of a terrible curse on the royal family of Chalion. Ista, who bore bravely years of living under the curse, with a terrible load of guilt and fear, as well as the burden of a loveless marriage and possession by a god which made her essentially insane, is now free of that. But her family and retainers are very protective of her -- her regained sanity remains in doubt, and she has lived a very circumscribed life. As the book opens she is chafing under what is in essence imprisonment, and she conceives the notion of a pilgrimage, ostensibly to pray for the birth of a grandson, but in reality simply to get out of her household for some time. She recruits, partly by accident, a new attendant who is actually a not very wellborn young woman named Liss,distinguished mainly by her horsemanship (she is a courier); and a priest of the Bastard to guide her pilgrimage: a young, fat, irreverent, and rather lusty fellow. She also accepts the protection of a group of soldiers led by two brothers, Ferda and Foix.

What she had hoped would be an interesting journey rather quickly turns dangerous. There are rumors of a great outbreak of demons, and disastrously one soon possesses Ferda. Then they run into a raiding party from the neighboring princedom of Jokona, who are adherents to a (mutually) heretical form of the Chalionese religion. They are rescued by a local nobleman, a great fighter and very handsome man named Arhys. At Arhys's castle, Ista finds a very jealous wife, and a severely ill half-brother, and, worse, indications of more aggression from the Jokonans. All this is surely tied to the infestations of demons ...

I thought it quite well done. Ista is an affecting character. The magic system/religion that Bujold has worked out remains interesting and a good source of plot conflicts. Perhaps Ista's powers seem to scale just a little conveniently to match the needs of the plot -- ever a problem with fantasies. But I enjoyed reading the novel, and I was surprised at several turns (if at other times things worked out a bit routinely). It is another fine story from Bujold.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

Review: The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

by Rich Horton

Not all countries have a "national novel", but apparently Italy does -- Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi, 1827, revised 1840.) This was its author's only novel, though he also wrote poetry, plays, and nonfiction. He had a rocky life in some ways -- his mother apparently had little to do with him, and left his (much older) father when Alessandro was 7. He did rejoin his mother, in Paris, at age 20, and made a happy marriage to a Swiss Protestant woman. But against this happiness, an apparently happy second marriage after his first wife died young, the success of his novel, and the birth of nine children, one must set the fact that seven children died before adulthood, both his wives predeceased him, and his health was poor for the last few decades of his long life. He wrote nothing more after the revised version of I Promessi Sposi appeared, and died in 1873 at the age of 87.

The Betrothed is considered Italy's "national novel" for a few reasons -- one is its sprawling plot, set during a few eventful years in the early 1600s; and its themes: the depredations of local tyrants, the folly of rulers, the ravages of war and plague. In addition, it was published as the desire for Italian reunification (that would culminate in the Risorgimento in the 1860s) was growing, and it was a major influence in the coalescence of the various Italian dialects into an accepted national language, based on the Tuscan dialect in which Manzoni's revised version was published. At his death, he was so celebrated that Verdi's Requiem was written in his honor.

I read the novel in Bruce Penman's translation, from 1972. I also read passages on my Kindle from Alexander Colquhoun's 1951 translation. Not long after I bought the Penman book, used, a new translation appeared, by Michael Moore. I have only sampled that one briefly -- it seems fine, if perhaps leaning a bit more into 21st century turns of phrase than I might prefer. The general feel of the prose is not dissimilar from Penman's, suggesting that both have captured at least to some extent Manzoni's Italian prose. The Colquhoun was less successful, to me -- for one thing, it seemed (mildly) abridged; for another, Colquhoun made the curious choice to Anglicize some names -- so for example the chief villain, Don Rodrigo, is called Don Roderick in his version. (This was a disappointment, for I am a great fan of Colquhoun's translation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, which I would think another candidate for the "Great Italian Novel" (and also its author's only novel, and, indeed, about the Risorgimento.))

The Betrothed is the story of two peasants, from the village of Lecco (near Milan), Lucia and Lorenzo (called Renzo), who wish to be married. There should be no bar to this union -- the families are happy with it, and Renzo has a good job. But the most powerful man in the area, Don Rodrigo, decides he wants Lucia, and he pressures the weak local priest not to perform the wedding. With the help of a worthy nearby monk, Father Cristoforo, the two lovers are able to evade a plot of Don Rodrigo's to kidnap Lucia, and the two escape to different places: Lucia to the protection of a convent, and Renzo to Milan. 

Don Rodrigo is still searching for them, and they have their own troubles. Renzo reaches Milan as a famine continues, and he gets involved in riots, as starving people are convinced that the bakers are hoarding bread. He ends up framed as an inciter of the riots, and has to escape to Bergamo, which is under the rule of Venice. Meanwhile Lucia is working for a nun called the Signora -- an unhappy woman who was forced into the convent by her parents. This all ends up badly as the Signora betrays her location to Don Rodrigo.

Events of wider significance intervene -- in particular, war comes to Milan, and in its wake, the Plague. Meanwhile Don Rodrigo has hired a notorious criminal, here called "The Unnamed", to kidnap Lucia, with the unfortunate aid of the Signora. And Renzo has found a good position in Bergamo. But Renzo is still threatened with arrest if he enters the territory of Milan. Their relationship is further complicated by the circumstances of Lucia's escape from the Unnamed -- which seemed to her (and probably was) an answer to a prayer, which included a promise to the Virgin Mary that she would remain a virgin. Renzo and Lucia -- both unlettered -- exchange communications which are amusingly confused.

The climax of the novel is several wrenching chapters detailing the effects of the Plague. As has been noted by many readers, some of the responses to the Plague depicted here resemble only too much some of the responses to COVID. But the Bubonic Plague (at least prior to antibiotics) has far worse effects than COVID, with fatality rates on the order of 25%. And Milan is hit hardest. Manzoni is darkly satirical in portraying the political responses, and affecting in portraying the ravages of it, and the heroism of some, including Father Cristoforo. And towards the end Renzo, having survived his own bout with sickness, comes to Milan in search of Lucia ...

The Betrothed actually only covers a smallish amount of territory in Northwest Italy. But its real scope is vast. Manzoni observes the abuses of the powerful, the follies of those in the middle, the occasional stupidity of everyone. He also portrays people of great courage and virtue, many of them churchmen -- such as Father Cristoforo and a major character I haven't mentioned, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. (Borromeo is an actual historical person, the nephew of St. Carlo Borromeo. There are many churches named for Charles Borromeo, including one just a couple of miles from my workplace. There are numerous other historical figures portrayed in this book, including the Signora (aka the Nun of Monza) and the Unnamed.) Manzoni views with his sympathetic but satiric eye the folly of politicians, and of mobs. It must be said that Renzo and Lucia are thinnish characters -- sweet and honest but not all that interesting. But Manzoni's portrayals of a host of other characters are fascinating, often hilarious, often piercing: Don Rodrigo, the Unnamed, Don Abbondio and his housekeeper Perpetua, Father Cristoforo, Donna Prassede (the silly and meddlesome woman who takes in Lucia after her rescue) and Donna Prassede's pompous husband. Like many great novels, The Betrothed mixes comedy and tragedy seamlessly, and in the end, I think, achieves its apparent goal of portraying a nation aborning, a people coming to consciousness of a possible unity that wouldn't happen for more than two centuries.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Review: Ledoyt, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Ledoyt, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was one of the greatest of SF writers, though she never quite got the recognition I felt she deserved -- and much of that she did get came late in life. There are many reasons for that -- she didn't start publishing until in her mid-30s, she stopped for a few years when her kids were young, her vision was very individual, and thus hard for many to get a grasp on, she wrote a fair amount outside the SF field. Another reason, though, is that she wrote mostly short fiction. She published only six novels, the first (Carmen Dog) in her late 60s, in 1988. Her last three were published in her 80s. All too often, it's novels that get the attention.

What about those other two novels? Well -- there's a story there too. Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill were published in 1995 and 1999, respectively. (In Emshwiller's 70s.) And -- they are not SF. They are Westerns, and not really conventional Westerns. Ledoyt is set in the first decade of the 20th Century, and Leaping Man Hill is set after the First World War. And they aren't shoot 'em up Westerns -- they are about families, about making a life in remote parts of California before anything much like modern technology had arrived. All this is not to say there's a lack of action -- there's plenty. There are fights, shots fired, rape, people dying. There's also sex and partying and honest work and weather and childcare advice from the 19th century. And that's just in Ledoyt.

The novel is set mostly between 1902 and 1910. We begin with Lotti, a 14 year old girl, writing in her journal, dated 1910, "it all began in the spring of 1902." What began? Well, that's when Beal Ledoyt, whose brother T-Bone is a neighbor to Lotti's mother, Oriana Cochran, shows up looking for work. T-Bone suggests he help out Mrs. Cochran, who came from the East a few years before with her young daughter. It's clear that a) Oriana comes from money; and b) that she's fleeing something traumatic. And, very quickly, Mrs. Cochran and Beal Ledoyt are in love. Oriana, who is about 30, is something of a beauty, and has been courted by several men in the neighborhood (I say neighborhood but there's no city, just people farming) and has shown no interest in them. Ledoyt is a few years older, has never stayed in one place for long, is very ugly, often drunk -- and also pretty capable. Lotti takes to him at first, but gets weirdly jealous when he and Oriana, unexpectedly to most everyone, marry. And Lotti's jealousy propels much of the plot.

The point of view jumps between Lotti and Oriana and Beal and eventually Lotti's new brother Fayette. It also jumps back and forth in time, though it's not entirely non-linear. (The 1910 thread, in particular, always moves forward.) It's clear from the beginning that both Oriana and Beal are severely scarred from their childhood, and it bits and pieces we learn why and how. Lotti, too, is a piece of work -- she's convinced she was adopted, and want to find her real family. She is unsure of her mother's love, in part because of how hard her mother has had to work, and in part ... well, we see why. She takes to Beal right away, tries to help him, decides she'll be a better man than any male ... and also she fancies Beal in a childish way so is furious when he marries her mother. In their tiny house she sees what they do in bed and that confuses her too. After Fayette is born, he follows her everywhere, and she's not exactly nice to him.

Oriana and Beal both have a hard time trusting themselves -- neither sees themselves as worthy of the other. Each believes their dark histories (not at all their own faults) have ruined them somehow. And they react in different and painful ways to the children they end up losing -- a normal part of frontier life, I suppose, but no less difficult. 

I'm making the story sound like a dreary Theodore Dreiser novel or something -- and that's not at all true. Yes, there is pain, there are deaths, there is violence. But there is at bottom love, and much happiness, and family being family. Ledoyt's family -- T-Bone and his wife Henriette and their children and other relatives -- are stable and helpful and loving. The voices of everyone are wonderfully captured, and the novel is suffused with humor. As I said too, there's plenty of action, culminating in a desperate winter trek over the hills (mountains?) in terrible weather, and an encounter with a violent criminal ending with a courageous rescue. And ... well I won't say what's next, but this in the ended a realistic and moving account of frontier life -- and love, very much love -- in the early 20th Century. And it's Carol Emshwiller, so it's witty when it needs to be, profound when it needs to be, and wonderfully written.

Emshwiller's novels have in one sense been very well served by their publishers, in the sense that the books have been nicely presented -- but with one exception, each one first appeared from a small press: The Women's Press, Mercury House, Small Beer, and Tachyon. (The one exception, Mister Boots, marketed as YA, appeared from Viking, and was reprinted by Penguin/Firebird, which also reprinted The Mount.) All those small presses are, if you'll forgive the word, classy, and to some extent prestigious -- but there books still probably don't sell quite as well. And Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill are out of print. This is a complete shame and I hope some wise publisher rectifies this situation soon.

(There is a wonderful review by Ursula K. Le Guin of Ledoyt at Strange Horizons, written back in 2000. I didn't read it until after I wrote the above. But it's very much worth reading.)

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Review: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Review: North and South, by Mrs. Gaskell

by Rich Horton

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in 1810. Her father was William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister and writer on economic subjects. (Stevenson, by the way, resigned his position as minister on conscientious grounds: remember this in view of events in North and South!) Elizabeth married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, in 1832. They eventually settled in Manchester. She wrote and published poems (with her husband) and some non-fiction beginning in the 1830s. Her first short story was published in 1847, and her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848, which made her name as a writer. Other important works are Cranford, Sylvia's Lovers, Cousin Phillis, and her last novel, unfinished at her sudden death in 1865, Wives and Daughters; as well as the first biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë. 

North and South was first published in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words, in 20 parts between 1854 and 1855. Dickens is supposed to have suggested the title (Gaskell was calling it Margaret Hale, after the heroine -- in this case if perhaps no other regarding the novel, Dickens was right.) The preceding serial was Dickens' own Hard Times, and both Hard Times and North and South are "industrial novels", and are set in lightly fictionalized versions of Manchester. This caused Gaskell some concern, as she didn't want to duplicate any of Dickens' plot points. Gaskell also battled Dickens over the length -- she thought it would be in 22 parts and felt like she was forced to rush the ending, and the book version not only extended the ending and added bits throughout, it also added chapters at the front. It is MUCH the superior version. I have the print edition pictured above, but I actually. "read" the novel by listening to it, in Claire Wille's effecting narration.

The novel begins as preparations continue for the wedding of Margaret Hale's cousin Edith. Margaret is now 18, and has spent the last several years in London with her mother's sister, Mrs. Shaw. Margaret has been happy enough there, but in general she is impatient with the rather shallow and fashionable life her aunt and cousin lead. She is ready to go back to her parents' place, in the small country parish of Helstone. Her only intellectual equal in her social circle is Edith's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Henry Lennox, an ambitious young lawyer. The wedding goes off well, Edith and her new husband head to Italy where he is posted, and Margaret returns to Helstone, where her father is Vicar of a small church. Mrs. Hale is a pleasant if rather inconsequential woman, given to complaining that her husband has not been given a more prestigious living. Margaret, however, loves the town of Helstone, and its people, and quickly settles back in. Two events disturb her peace, however: Henry Lennox comes to visit, and he asks her to marry him. Margaret is taken aback -- she has not thought of him as anything but a friend. He is abashed, but vows to try again after some time, as there is no one else Margaret cares for in that way. Then, more shockingly, Mr. Hale announces that he has decided, for reasons of conscience, that he must resign his position -- he has become a Dissenter. (It's not clear if his inclinations are Methodist or perhaps Unitarian (like Mrs. Gaskell's father and husband.)) This will result in even further reductions in their income, and, it soon becomes clear, a move to the industrial northern town of Milton (in a fictional county called Darkshire -- a name perhaps a bit too much on the nose.) This move has been recommended by Mr. Hale's old college friend, Adam Bell, who has property in Milton, and who believes that Mr. Hale can make a living as a tutor to some of the ambitious young men in town, or their children.

The move is accomplished (mostly through the efforts of Margaret and of Mrs. Hale's redoubtable maid Dixon.) Life in Milton is less pleasant than in Helstone -- the air is smoky, the people are constantly bustling -- all what Margaret calls "shoppy people", and the Hales' finances are less certain. Mr. Hale has one particular favorite student: John Thornton, who rents the property on which he has built a cotton mill from Mr. Bell. Mr. Thornton is a truly self-made man -- his father had lost all his money and committed suicide, and his mother had by pure force of will brought up John and his younger sister Fanny. John started as a draper's clerk and was eventually able to take over the cotton mill and make it a success, and he, conscious of his lack of education, is reading the classics with Mr. Hale. They become friends, and sometimes discuss their differing philsophies of life -- Margaret joins in these discussions occasionally, somewhat  repulsed by the commercial ambitions of Mr. Thornton but slowly realizing that his ambitions are more than simply to make as much money as he can.

Margaret also makes the acquaintance of a Nicholas Higgins and his sickly daughter Bessy, who live not far from the Hales' place. Margaret befriends Bessy, who is dying because of the cotton fluff she inhaled while working in one of Milton's many factories. Margaret comes to realize something of the conditions of life for the working class -- and makes friends as well with the prickly and irreligious Mr. Higgins. And she learns that the workers in Milton have formed a union, and that they plan a strike. Margaret hears as well from Mr. Thornton that he and his fellow mill-owners know of the strike, and are determined to resist it -- in part because their businesses are suffering. 

Thus the mainsprings of the novel -- a depiction of life in the industrial North, and its effect on those who live there (with an implied contrast to the more bucolic South); and also the obvious to the reader growing attraction, both intellectual and physical, between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. (A love story that has been compared, in a slightly inverted way, to that of Pride and Prejudice.) The strike comes to fruition, and a climactic event involves Margaret, by accident at the Thorntons' home, protecting John from violent strikers. John misinterprets, or at least overinterprets, her actions, driving the love story in one direction. Meanwhile, a series of at least six deaths convulse the personal lives of the main characters -- beginning with Bessy Higgins ... and, well, I'll not list the rest. There is another major plot point involving Margaret's older brother Frederick, a Navy man who became involved in a mutiny, and as a result is living in exile in Spain. This leads to a nearly catastrophic action by Margaret which severely impacts her relationship with John Thornton; and also to the re-entry of Henry Lennox, who tries to help Frederick clear his name.

The novel unspools beautifully ... Margaret needs to move back to London, after a cathartic reacquaintance with Helstone. Henry Lennox is back in the picture. Nicholas Higgins finds himself in a curious way again a parent; and also, in a curious way, an ally of sorts to John Thornton, as John's business is severely threatened. Margaret and John both labor under the burden of realizing they have seriously wronged the other (at least in their heads) with no way of resolving that. Henry's efforts to clear Frederick's name bring him back into Margaret's orbit -- but not quite as he hopes.

I won't say the novel is perfect. There is an array of coincidences, each in itself plausible enough but in toto a bit of a stretch. The optimism about labor/management relations that eventually arises is -- let's just say, the way one might hope things could be but not entirely the way things have worked out (though, to be honest to some extent they have worked out this way, just more slowly.) And the ending -- even with Gaskell's revisions -- was just a tad abrupt for me. But -- I absolutely loved it.

To begin with -- Margaret Hale. I don't know if this is just me drinking Gaskell's Kool-Aid, but I admired Margaret about as much as I have ever admired a novel's protagonist. She is -- and I believed this, that's the point -- supremely intelligent, morally upright, beautiful (and it's hard to truly portray this in prose, but I bought it), willing to recognize when she's wrong and change, hardworking, not at all egostical. I think she's one of the great women in fiction, and not well enough known for that. The novel is also socially conscious, and at the same time inquisitive -- willing to present two sides of an issue, willing to tolerate ambiguity. It is honest. It is generous. As much as we like the main characters, we like others -- Nicholas Higgins, justifiably bitter but also honest and willing to learn; the cranky maid Dixon, jealous of her rights but amusing and true -- and the likewise cranky Mrs. Thornton. Adam Bell, the lone truly comic character in the book (though Dixon has her moments) -- but also a deeply loving man, aware of his weaknesses but not really willing to change. Henry Lennox -- a brittlely intelligent man, constrained by his social milieu to limit his sympathy for those not his equals, and perhaps by the end understading this. 

Gaskell engages, perhaps not as deeply but still intriguingly, with religious differences as well. Of course there is Mr. Hale's crisis of conscience at the heart of things. With Margaret remaining a convicted Anglican. And Frederick, her brother, converting to Catholicism, perhaps for the love of a Spanish girl he meets. While Nicholas Higgins is unable to turn to God, given the unjust conditions he lives under, and especially how they impact his beloved daughter. 

(A minor point -- the chapters are headed with quotations from poems, some from anonymous writers, and many from Gaskell's contemporaries, such as Landor -- and George Eliot, whose first novel appeared a couple of years after North and South -- a useful reminder that Eliot was first known for her poetry (and criticism), much respected at the time but almost unread now.)

North and South grabbed my attention from the outset, and never let go. I looked forward to reading (hearing) it desperately. Gaskell's prose is impeccable, if never as perfect as Eliot's, nor quite as clever as Braddon could be. I was brought to tears over and over again -- at acts of heroism, at tragic events, at inspirational moments. Every character seemed real, though some were perhaps less deep than others -- Margaret's cousin Edith, and indeed her mother, were perhaps a bit too much types -- but believable types. It's a wonderful novel, and in recent decades it has claimed its deserved recognition at last -- I can only say, if you like Victorian fiction at all (and you should!) -- you must read this novel.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Review: Death and the Chaste Apprentice, by Robert Barnard

Review: Death and the Chaste Apprentice, by Robert Barnard

Scribner, 1989, ISBN: 0684190028

a review by Rich Horton

(This resurrects a review I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup back in 1997. I don't cover the mystery writers I read often enough, so I figure posting this one would be nice. It's been slightly updated.)

I seem to read mystery writers in clumps: that is, I find a writer I like, read most of his or her output over a period of a year or two, then move on to someone else, possibly keeping up more or less with the previous favorite, possibly letting the previous favorite drop. I don't think I do this in any other genre: I couldn't say why. Perhaps it is because mystery writers tend to be somewhat prolific, and to write series of novels featuring the same characters. At any rate, in the past I've run through Robert B. Parker, Rex Stout, Ellis Peters, Anne Perry, Peter Lovejoy, Georges Simenon, and others. And my mystery writer of the moment (1997) is now Robert Barnard.

Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was an Englishman who spent time as a lecturer in English Literature both in Australia and Norway (and both locales have turned up in his books). He wrote an academic volume on Dickens. Beginning in 1974 he published some 40 mystery novels and many short stories. The novels are characterized mostly by their dryly satiric tone. They are very funny, and very biting. For the most part, he seems to have eschewed the continuing series format, although he has published several books featuring Scotland Yard's Perry Trethowan, and a couple more featuring a character first introduced in the Trethowan books, Charlie Peace. Given that the non-series books feature one-off detectives, he is more free than usual to turn his sights on the foolishness and incompetence of the crime-fighters, as well as that of the criminals, and in several of his books a main object of satire is the police.

The latest Barnard novel that I've read (as of 1997) is Death and the Chaste Apprentice. This is not particularly recent, and while not his best, it's a solid book, and also a bit less savage than some of his works. It's not really part of any of his series (as far as I know), though Charlie Peace does turn up (and Wikipedia cites it as the first Charlie Peace novel.)

The Chaste Apprentice of the title is also the title character of a fictional Jacobean comedy which is being staged at an arts festival near London. The arts festival is held in part in an old inn, and we are introduced to the cast of the play, staying at the Inn, a couple of classical singers who are also performing at the festival, and the manager of the Inn, a rather odious, snoopy, Australian (Barnard really seems to have it in for Australia). Barnard spends some time setting up the complex dynamics of the characters: a young actor who seems to be falling for the Russian singer, an alcoholic actress, the leading couple of the play, who are married to each other but engage in very public adultery, the incredibly self-centred Indian singer and his manager, the tyrannical conductor of the opera, the eccentric director of the play, and of course the Inn's manager, who alienates everyone with his snooping and his know-it-all attitude. Then, as the play opens, a murder occurs, and the police have to investigate. Naturally, the investigation reveals a variety of unpleasant secrets which don't have anything to do with the murder, before finally ending with a slight twist and a nicely logical solution. (Actually one of Barnard's stronger mystery plots: many of his books, while still thoroughly entertaining, have very strained solutions.)

The true pleasure of this book, as with all Barnard, is the sly sarcastic asides which pepper the descriptions of the characters and events. At the same time, the characters are mostly rather sympathetic, even when somewhat flawed: this is not always true with Barnard, as I have read books of his which feature literally no likable characters. This book is also interesting for the snippets of information about Jacobean drama as well as 19th century opera.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

by Rich Horton

Adrian Tchaikovsky* made his name with a long fantasy series, Shadow of the Apt, then began writing SF with this novel, published in 2015. Along the way he's published a fair amount of short fiction, and I reprinted one of those, "Dress Rehearsal", in my 2017 Best of the Year volume. So Tchaikovsky was on my radar -- and when Children of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I knew I needed to read it. But -- I sometimes have a hard time getting to novels! I recently bought the third book in the trilogy, however (it was at a convention, and they didn't have the first two!) -- so I finally got the audio version of this first book and read it. (By lucky coincidence it turns out that the book is even my book club selection for next month -- something I didn't realize until after I started it!)

The audiobook is read by Mel Hudson, very capably. I always enjoy hearing an English accent (especially for a book written by an English person) -- kind of emphasizes the whole "separated by a common language" thing. With an English reader, I usually find words pronounced differently from the American way, sometimes almost comically -- there really is NOT a second "i" in the word "specialty"! Except -- apparently in England "speciality" is an accepted alternate spelling! 

Children of Time opens in a star system 20 light years from Earth. Dr. Avrana Kern has been leading a terraforming effort, and now she is ready to release her crowning achievement -- a set of monkeys to inhabit the planet, and a virus engineered to accelerate the monkeys' evolution into an intelligent species. But at the last moment, the effort is sabotaged, and Kern ends up marooned in orbit, the rest of the terraforming station destroyed, her monkeys having burned up in atmosphere. But we soon learn that the virus did make it to the planet's surface, and, having no monkeys to infect, instead it finds some other species -- particularly a variety of spider. Kern uploads herself into a computer, and her physical body goes into suspension. And down on the planet, the spiders begin the process of what we might has well call uplift.

Some two millennia in the future, civilization on Earth is all but finished. War destroyed the Old Empire -- driven by the same political rift that motivated the saboteur of Kern's project. The few survivors of the succeeding ice age have managed to patch together a few "Ark Ships", sending the crews (in suspension along with the "Cargo" -- the potential colonists) to the worlds they believe the Old Empire terraformed. The Gilgamesh has arrived at "Kern's World" -- but Avrana Kern awakens to meet them -- and warn them off, for she wants her world preserved for what she thinks are "her" uplifted monkeys. By this time her physical self is insane, and her uploaded copy more or less constrained to obey the insane part. Holsten Mason is the "classicist" assigned to the Gilgamesh's crew -- an expert on the old Imperial languages they expect to find at the terraformed sites. So it is Holsten who learns to understand Kern. His best friend becomes the head of Engineering, Isa Lain, whose job it is to understand the Imperial tech they encounter (and to maintain the the Gilgamesh.) Antagonists (of a sort) are the Captain, Guyen, who has a barely sane Messianic streak of his own, and the head of security, Karst.

Down on the planet, the spiders have achieve a fairly high level of intelligence, and are beginning to build societies. Tchaikovsky uses an interesting device to maintain continuity with the spiders over their many generations -- he calls three main characters the same names generation after generation: Portia, the adventurer/explorer; Bianca (or "Bee-anker" in Britspeak!), the scientist; and Fabian, the revolutionary male. (In spider society, females are larger and dominant -- and they often eat their mates -- one of the crusades of one of the Fabians is to make that practice illegal.) 

We follow the growth of spider society -- increasing use of technology (especially biotech); increasing social cooperation and organization; a battle with ants for territory followed by harnessing the ant colonies for various technological uses, such as a biogical computer; and, crucially, contact with Avran Kern, whom they call the "Messenger", a god who for centuries has been transmitting mathematical equations, hoping to hear the correct solutions from what she believes will be at last "uplifted" monkeys. More or less in parallel we see the struggles of the Gilgamesh -- an attempt to evade Kern's quarantine of "her" world, an attempt to travel to the next terraformed world down the line, which fails terribly; and a return to Kern's world for a last ditch effort of take possession of the world now owned by the spiders. All this leads to a desperate final battle, as the human history of ecological disaster and genocide threatens everything the spiders have built, with only Mason dimly realizing how wrong this is. And it leads to a striking and quite moving conclusion.

The novel is really cool old-fashioned SF. There is effective use of some traditional SF ideas -- the Gilgamesh becomes in essence a generation ship, and some familiar generation ship tropes are nicely deployed. Even better is the speculation about spider society, and the really neat ideas about how they think and use tech, etc. They do come off, perhaps inevitably, as a bit too human in some ways, though Tchaikovsky tries to avoid that. (The wonderful revelation of what the character is Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky are really like doesn't happen in this case.) But that isn't a big problem, and in a way is key to the resolution (and, I presume, to the sequels.) It's a lot of fun, and I'd say it deserved its Clarke Award.

*(I love the story of Adrian Tchaikovsky's penname -- he's English, of Polish descent, real name Czajkowski, but his publishers wanted a name English people could pronounce -- so they suggested Tchaikovsky, pronounced the same (I assume) as his real name, but easy for English readers to recognize because of the composer.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

An M-Brane SF Double: The New People, by Alex Jeffers/Elegant Threat, by Brandon H. Bell

An M-Brane SF Double: The New People, by Alex Jeffers/Elegant Threat, by Brandon H. Bell

by Rich Horton

My fellow St. Louisan Christopher Fletcher published 30 issues of M-Brane SF in the three year period from February 2009 through January 2012 -- in print! A staggering achievement, really. And the fiction he published was of impressive quality. He had other publishing ambitions -- Brandon H. Bell edited three issues of Fantastique Unfettered for him, and Rick Novy edited an anthology, Ergosphere. (Fletcher and Bell also edited an anthology for Eric Reynolds' Hadley Rille Press, The Aether Age: Helios, sort of a steampunk revisiting of Ancient Greece.) Christopher also entertained the idea of publishing a set of double novels, in the Ace Double format (i.e. tête bèche, each side oriented at 180 degrees to the other, with either potentially the "front.") In the end, he only published one such book -- the one I'm covering now, which backs a pair of long novellas (30,000 words or so apiece) by M-Brane regulars. Christopher was kind enough to send me a copy a few years ago, and it took me an unconscionably long time to get to it, especially given that Alex Jeffers is a writer I particularly admire. But I have finally read it!

[Cover by Jeff Lund]

Both pieces are pretty self-contained stories from planned novels that have not, alas, yet eventuated. Alex Jeffers' The New People is, according to Fletcher's introduction, part of a book to be called A Boy's History of the World. The setting is  Rahab, an ocean planet somewhat isolated from what we presume is a larger galactic society. Humans live on only a few small archipelagoes, but life seems generally quite comfortable, with fairly high technology used in a what seem environmentally friendly ways. There is one unusual feature -- the population is entirely male. It is a purposeful inversion of the societies depicted in stories as varied as Joanna Russ's "When it Changed" and Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet: those are all female societies, this of Rahab is all male. (The other prominent such example is Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos. One more, less pleasant, example occurs in Cordwainer Smith's "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal.") "Jannicke's Cat" depicted the title woman (not the cat!) as the last surviving female of whatever disaster wiped out all females on Rahab. The New People is set centuries later. Genetic engineering allows male children to be born to male couples. Life is calm, almost idyllic.

The story opens with Jafet desperately running out of a building ... we soon learn the building has been bombed. Jafet is one of a few survivors. And one of the suspects in the bombing is a group called the "New People" -- and Jafet has read their manifesto approvingly. As soon as he recovers, a policeman -- a very attractive man -- is questioning him. But it's fairly clear he had no involvement ... Then, 13 years before, we return to Jafet, still living with his fathers. Jafet has realized he is profoundly attracted to other boys, and he learns, or internalizes, that while his fathers love each other well enough, they are, at heart, heterosexual -- and of course there are no women. That, then, is the central paradox of Rahab, a world of all men, apparently a mostly happy world, but a world in which most relationships are more platonic than fully sexual. (The question really isn't asked, and perhaps would be unfair: but could this in some ways account for the apparent, well, pleasantness of life in this world?) 

Things continue on those two alternating timelines: the earlier one following Jafet's early adult life, as he does his global service, a few six month assignments, at various places around the world. More importantly, he meets a man, Evren, a remarkably talented singer. They fall head over heels for each other, as Jafet tries to work around his service requirements to follow Evren on tour, and as Evren makes a place of Jafet in his life, and is clearly ready for much more. But we know all along that didn't work out, for in the present Jafet is still unmarried, and indeed is emotionally a wreck, blaming himself constantly for breaking off with his past love. Moreoever, as the investigation into the bombing continues, we learn that it was an attack on one of the main nurseries in Rahab -- a place where the new babies are decanted, and their fathers first meet them. And one of those new fathers was Evren, and Evren's husband and child are among the dead.

The two strands move closer and closer, as in the one we see Jafet and Evren's love affair, and then the crushing way it ended. And in the present we follow (at a distance) the investigation into the bombing, as Jafet becomes intrigued with the policeman until he realizes that won't work, and as he learns eventually something of the motivation behind the bombing, and also something of the history of The New People movement and its goals (which intrigue Jafet.) And of course Jafet realizes that as Evren has survived he must face his pain and resolve their relationship. And behind all these strands lies the central problem at the heart of life on Rahab -- the only possible sexual relationships are between men, but most men are born essentially heterosexual. (This last presents a distinct contrast to the stories mentioned above -- the Russ and Anderson and Bujold.) Beyond that this is a story about a lovely sunny world (truly a near utopia) with some honest darkness dogging it. It's a really well-done story, that I think will benefit from the additional context of other planned episodes set in the same world.

[Cover by Jeff Lund]

Elegant Threat is subtitled ... on the Demise of Captain Fantomas Patton-Guerrero and Loss of La Amenaza Elegente. This tells us right away that the story won't end happily. La Amenaza Elegente is a ship that descends to the surface of the moon Shanama, in the Alpha Centauri (or Rigil Kentaurus) system, to harvest some of the local life, which is DNA-based, as opposed to the more alien life on Oasis, the planet the humans in this system seem to have colonized. There is a background, only dimly perceived here, of a conflict between Post-humans and still (fairly) normal humans. But this story really focuses on one fraught expedition to the surface of Shanama, and the effect this has on the ship's Captain, his wife Pristina, their two daughters, 16 year old Cancer and 8 year old Toro; as well as the first mate, Khalid, and his son Amr. Khalid and Amr are "slicks" -- the working class -- and Amr has a bit of a crush on Cancer, who seems a vain brat.

The story shows a bit of the normal operation of the ship, and shows Amr and Cancer serving (to different degrees) as apprentices -- intended to learn the ropes. But the ship has been sabotaged (betrayed by one of the crew ) and by happenstance the three children are the only ones on the ship when it goes out of control, and the main action, then, follows a desperate rescue attempt across the surface of the moon, with danger including the weather, and ghost sharks, and a megalodon. Amr grows up a bit -- or a lot -- and Toro has her own variety of heroism, while Cancer shows a different side -- not always pleasant. And Khalid and Fantomas and Pristina and their crew risk their lives try to save the children ...

It's exciting enough, and the setting is fascinating. But I did come away feeling I needed to know more about the back story, and more details about the slick position in society, and indeed the society as a whole, and perhaps especially about the conflict with the Posthumans. It's likely the finished novel would fill in a lot of these details (and at least two other stories in this milieu have appeared) but as it is this novella, though worth reading, doesn't fully succeed.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Review: Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) began selling SF in the mid-1950s, and it was quickly evident that she was a major talent. But while her early work got admiring notice, it was just offbeat enough not to make her famous -- and in the early '60s she wrote little, presumably while raising her children.* (Her husband was Ed Emshwiller, the great SF artist and also an important experimental filmmaker.) In the late '60s she resumed writing, and continued to produce original and challenging short fiction for most of the rest of her life (her last story appeared in 2012 -- health problems (most related to her eyesight, I believe) caused her to stop.) But like many SF writers, she was best at shorter lengths, and she didn't publish a novel until 1988. In the end, she published only six novels -- two of them Westerns set in the 20th Century, and four SF novels. By the end of her life, people such as me were suggesting that she should be an SFWA Grand Master, but I suspect that the shape of her career, and her relatively small output of novels, kept her just enough under the radar that she never received that award -- though she was named winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2019, and she also won a couple of World Fantasy Awards (including one for Life Achievement), a couple of Nebulas, and a Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel for The Mount

That first novel, published in 1988, was Carmen Dog, the novel at hand. It was published by The Women's Press, an English publishing house which published books by and about women, some reprints and some new, between 1979 and 2002. They had an SF line, which featured reprints by the likes of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler among many others, and original fiction by Josephine Saxton, Melanie Tem, and Emshwiller, again among others. (I will say for myself that I applaud the words they published, but the books were often poorly bound and the covers were terrible.) Carmen Dog was reprinted by Mercury House in the US in 1990, and again reprinted in 2004 by Small Beer Press in their Peapod Classics line. I have the latter edition, a really nice trade paperback, with an unusual trim size (5.5" by 7") and a fine cover by Kevin Huizenga.

The book is a delight. As it opens, we learn that all over the world, women are transforming into animals (of all kinds) and animals are transforming into women. The main character is a dog named Pooch, who is becoming a woman. Pooch is devoted to her master and the baby, and when her master's wife, who is changing to some sort of water creature, bites the baby, she decides she must take the baby away. Pooch has also discovered a talent for opera singing, and loves Carmen above all. 

But Pooch's opera dreams, as well as her hopes for reunification with her former master, are disrupted, first by arrest (and a trip to the pound) and then by a "rescue" by an experimental psychologist, who has "plans" to understand what is happening to the females of both the animal and human species. In both places Pooch makes friends with other females, both going "up" to humanness, or "down" to animal species. (While Pooch's sympathies are with those "ascending", like her, the question of which is better or if either is "better" is deliberately ambiguous.) The psychologist's treatments are truly horrifying, and Pooch loses her ability to speak -- and to sing. But she keeps on struggling, and keeps protecting the baby. Her adventures continue -- to a daring escape, a visit to the opera, a sexual escapade with another female and her opera singer lover, and eventually contact with a revolutionary group led by the psychologist's also altered wife.

This novel manages to be both very funny, very moving, and quite pointed. It's a deeply feminist novel, and through Pooch's naive ears we hear pointed observations about how men perceive women -- both those animals who have been "uplifted" and those humans whose nature is tending towards the animalistic. The revolution is most assuredly aimed at allowing women to be free of male expectations -- but at the same time is not anti men -- just desiring a future for men and women in which both flourish cooperatively. As the revolution's manifesto goes: "Neither Conqueror nor Conquered, Neither Victory nor Defeat." It is simply a very fun novel, and a very thought-provoking one. It's beautifully imagined, sly, sweet, witty, and inspiring. Emshwiller was one of the great treasures of the SF field, under-recognized in her lifetime but never ignored, and we should be rediscovering all her work now, ready to place her in her deserved spot in the SF pantheon.

*It's worth noting that Carol Emshwiller's daughter Susan is a fine writer on her own, mostly of plays and screenplays, but also short fiction, including a story in F&SF. Her first novel, Thar She Blows, has just been released. Thar She Blows.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Review: Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon 

a review by Rich Horton

This is a somewhat famous mid-19th Century novel that, I gather, was somewhat (though never entirely) neglected for some time for the usual reasons, in some mix or another -- it's a noticeably "popular" novel in conception and ambition, it was a tremendous financial success (and indeed its author, over a long career, became quite wealthy), its plot is very melodramatic, and the author was a woman (and a woman with a faintly scandalous reputation, at least at the outset.) In more recent times these prejudices have lessened in importance, and it is now reasonably well established in what might be called the secondary canon of Victorian fiction. Braddon's reputation might track, to some extent, with that of her friend and sort of mentor, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or with her contemporary and fellow writer of "sensation novels", Wilkie Collins; both of whom faced the same prejudices as Braddon with the exception of their sex.

I have had this novel in the back of my mind for a while, and when it popped up recently as a free audiobook, I figured, why not? And I was grabbed from the beginning. It is a great deal of sheer fun. And besides that -- it is really well-written. And there is a lot going on besides the sensational plot that only adds to the interest. Look -- it's not Middlemarch. But hardly anything is! It's a fine novel, with an admittedly implausible plot that is nonetheless fascinating, and with plenty of trenchant observation, well-described situations, and nicely turned lines and paragraphs. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born in 1835 (a day (and 124 years) before my birthday), to a nominally middle-class family, but her mother left her father, who was unfaithful and a failure at his business, when Mary was five. She grew up in straitened circumstances, and became an actress at age 17 to help support her mother, but turned to writing a few years later. She fell in love with her publisher, John Maxwell, who was about a decade older, and still married. (His wife is often said to have been confined to an asylum, while other sources say she lived in her family's home. I suspect the latter is true, and the asylum rumor derived from Braddon's fiction.) Lady Audley's Secret was her first major success, though about her sixth novel (her first appeared in 1860 -- she wrote quickly.) It began serialization in Maxwell's magazine Robin Goodfellow in 1861, but after the magazine failed, it moved to Sixpenny Magazine in 1862, and was also published in book form that year. It was sufficiently popular that it was serialized again in 1863.

Braddon continued to write for most of the rest of her long life. She became friends quite early with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose work she admired, and they corresponded regularly. She died in 1915, at the age of 79. Her writing made her rich, and she was also an editor and publisher (notably of Belgravia Magazine.) None of her other novels achieved the same fame as her first, though Aurora Floyd (1863) still has readers. She had six children with John Maxwell. (Maxwell and Braddon had married in 1874, after the death of Maxwell's first wife.) One of them, William Babington Maxwell, became a successful novelist as well (though his books do seem forgotten now). William was also a friend of King Edward VII (Victoria's immediate successor), suggesting that Braddon and Maxwell had achieved respectability. Mary's brother Edward moved to India and then Australia while she was still young, and eventually became Premier of Tasmania, and remains a somewhat significant figure in Australian history -- so he too seems to have been a success. 

I confess I find Mary Elizabeth Braddon's life fascinating and indeed rather inspiring. But what about the novel at hand?

We open at Audley Court, the home of Sir Michael Audley, and his daughter Alicia. We learn quickly that Sir Michael has just remarried -- a very young woman, 21 or 22 years old, named Lucy Graham. Lucy had been the governess to Dr. Dawson's three girls, a very accomplished artist and pianist, of a very sweet disposition, much liked by the local people, and very pretty. Sir Michael is very happy with his new wife, but his daughter does not get along with her at all.

Next we meet Edward Talboys, sailing from Australia back to England. After over three years in Australia, he has made his fortune, and is ready to reunite with his wife and young son. There is a fascinating conversation with a fellow traveller, a Miss Morley, who has been in Australia for 15 years and hopes at last to be able to marry her fiancé. The two share their hopes, and their fears -- will their loves be waiting still for them? (We never do find out what happened to Miss Morley -- I admit I'd like to know the rest of her story.)

And then we encounter Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew. He is an idle man about town -- trained to be a barrister, and so licensed, but he has not taken up that profession, preferring to read French novels and smoke cigars and take care of his birds and dogs. By chance he runs into a man while heading to his bank -- and recognizes his old friend George Talboys. George asks him for help depositing the money he's made in Australia, and then mentions that he looking for his wife Helen Talboys. And then they see a notice in the Times, announcing the death of one Helen Talboys, aged only 22. 

So the main action is set in motion. George is in despair, but Robert convinces him to join him on a visit to Audley Court. Somehow Lady Audley is never available to meet Robert ... indeed, she makes a sudden journey to London. Robert and Alicia cross swords a bit -- it's clear to the reader that Alicia is in love with her cousin, but Robert, though he likes her well enough, is unaware of her feelings. She does let them up to her father's rooms, including a newly painted portrait of his new wife -- and George is struck dumb.

The reader knows what's going on by now, of course. On another visit George is at last able to maneuver a meeting with Lady Audley ... and then he disappears. It seems he has returned to Australia. Robert becomes obsessed with finding what really happened to him, especially after his visits to the offices of the ships to Australia, and his advertisements in Australian papers, prove fruitless. So he starts tracking, as best he can, the history of George Talboy's life, and his marriage, and his father-in-law and son. And then he looks into the life of Helen Talboys before she met George; and into the history of Lucy Graham before her time with Dr. Dawson. He is convinced that something quite terrible has happened to George, but proof is hard to find. He is ready to throw it all up, especially after a visit to George's father reveals that his father cares little for George's fate ... but then George's sister accosts Robert -- and between her passion to find out what really happened to her beloved brother, and her beautiful brown eyes, Robert realizes he is quite lost -- he has at last fallen for a woman, and he is bound to carry his search for the secret of Robert's fate to the bitter end.

I've failed to mention another key thread -- the story of Lady Audley's maid, Phoebe Marks, and her brutish cousin, later husband, Luke Marks. They have happened on Lady Audley's secret, and Luke blackmails Lady Audley to set him up as proprietor of a public house. But a blackmailer never stops, of course, so -- well, I'll say no more for now, except to note that bits of Braddon's life story show up in this book: the bigamy aspect, a woman confined to an asylum, a man who goes to Australia to make his fortune. 

So -- it's a wildly plotty (and well plotted) melodramatic novel. That's fine, but weren't those a ha'pence a dozen in the Victorian Era? Couldn't (and didn't) Charlotte Brame have done much the same? Well, yes, but ... Braddon could really write. And she was doing -- cleverly -- much more than telling the melodramatic surface story. For one thing, the book is really funny when it wants to be, especially in describing Robert Audley's character, and allowing him the occasional exaggerated rant about women (before he falls in love) -- these read to me like Braddon getting some frustration off her chest about some of the things she'd heard from men over the years. There are other comic delights, too, for example her aside about Lucy Graham's teacher, Mrs. Vincent, and her parsimony: "Mrs. Vincent might have hesitated to pay [Miss Tonks] from very contempt for the pitiful nature of the stipend as compared with the merits of the teacher." (This in the midst of a beautifully observed passage about Mrs. Vincent's poverty and her living quarters.) The depiction of George Talboy's absurdly strict father is also a comic -- or tragicomic -- delight.

Also: Robert Audley on women: "What a wonderful solution to life's enigma there is in petticoat government. A man might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses and fancy it 'always afternoon,' if his wife would let him. But she won't, bless her impulsive heart and active mind. She knows better than that. ... She drives her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. ... That's why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. ... They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators -- anything they like -- but let them be quiet -- if they can."

There's also some subtle thematic play underneath the surface. Characters have doubles, characters wear masks, play parts. Inevitably, some contemporary readers see a homoerotic element to the friendship between Robert Audley and George Talboys. I think you can try to read it that way if you like, but -- frankly, not every male friendship is queer, and sometimes the automatic assumptions some readers bring to such friendships can get a bit tiresome. The novel, also, is concerned with class and financial status, and how poverty -- or any change in financial situations -- can drive people. Certainly this is central to Lady Audley's life and actions, but also to those of Lucy and Phoebe Marks, of Mrs. Vincent, even of George Talboys. 

The novel is surely not perfect. For all Braddon's awareness of class, she retains class prejudices, particularly in the treatment of Phoebe and Luke. And she is keenly aware of women's place and society, and she acknowledges its unfairness -- but she also is quite Victorian in her perceptions of gender roles. The characters -- with the exceptions, to some extent, of Lady Audley and Robert -- are not precisely deeply observed, and only Robert really grows (and I'm not sure I bought all of his growth.) There is also a degree of "characterization by looks" and of hinting at character by things like noticing that Alicia Audley's dogs hate Lady Audley. The last portion of the novel -- apparently finished at great speed after the opportunity for a new serialization arose -- is rushed a bit, with key revelations left to a long confessional monologue, and with what should be a major romance plot rather scanted.

But those reservations aside, I found this novel a pure delight to read. It's longish, at some 150,000 words, but reads rapidly. Truly gripping, quite well-written, with some real depth beneath the lurid surface. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Belmont Double Review: Father of Lies, by John Brunner/Mirror Image, by Bruce Duncan

Belmont Double Review: Father of Lies, by John Brunner/Mirror Image, by Bruce Duncan (Belmont, 1968, $0.60)

A review by Rich Horton

This is slightly embarrassing -- a couple of years ago I happened across this Belmont Double and bought it -- it was very cheap, and I have an interest in "Double books" and in John Brunner. I started in on it once or twice but didn't keep going. Then, after reviewing the sort of proto-Belmont Double A Pair From Space (Robert Silverberg's We, The Marauders paired with James Blish's Giants in the Earth) I decided I ought to get down to it and read this "real" Belmont Double to review it. Then I did a Google search -- and found the review below, that I did nearly two decades ago on rec.arts.sf.written. I had completely forgot that I already had the book and had read and reviewed it! Though in my defense my review suggests that it was pretty darn forgettable! So -- here's my old review, with some modest revisions.

I thought it might be interesting to look at another Double Book from a different publisher, to contrast with my Ace Double reviews. Belmont was a rather low end paperback publisher in the 50s and 60s. They did a number of Double Books, called simply enough Belmont Doubles, in the 60s. In general, these books seem to have been much less good than Ace Doubles. Indeed, I believe that Harlan Ellison thought so little of his Belmont Double (Doomsman, backed with Lee Hoffman's Telepower) that he was known to buy copies from fans for the purpose of destroying them. (Hoffman, I understand, was less than pleased with this stunt.)

The book to hand pairs a John Brunner story with a story by an author completely unknown to me, Bruce Duncan. The first difference to notice from the Ace Doubles is that the stories are not upside down relative to each other like Ace Doubles -- Brunner's Father of Lies comes first, and then Duncan's Mirror Image. (The Ace Double organization is properly called tête-bêche, though many people, myself included, have mistakenly called it dos-à-dos.) The price is actually the same as Ace Doubles of that period, 60 cents. However, the length is very different: Father of Lies is about 21,000 words, and Mirror Image about 22,000. Both stories, then, are shorter than almost every single Ace Double half. At 43,000 words, this book is very short for even single novels of that period. Most Ace Doubles were at least about 65,000 words combined, and usually longer. One of the shortest Ace Double is the late reprinting of two Jack Vance stories that had earlier been paired with different, longer, halves: The Dragon Masters/The Last Castle, which are about 57,000 words combined. (To be sure, that particular Ace Double may be the shortest, but it is also one of the very best!) (I have since realized that Belmont's practice was to pair two novellas -- never novel length stories -- and that these novellas were often (though not always) reprints.)

Brunner's Father of Lies was previously published in the British magazine Science Fantasy, #52, from 1962. (A significant issue, as it also included Thomas Burnett Swann's classic "Where is the Bird of Fire?".) It's actually a decent piece of work, though nothing special. It begins quite a bit better than it ends. A group of young people are investigating a mysterious spot on the map, where time seems to have gone backwards. When they blunder in there, modern technology stops working. And they discover an ogre, and later a dragon. Finally, one man discovers that another modern has wandered in by mistake -- a beautiful young woman whom he finds naked and tied to a stake, meant as a sacrifice to the dragon. In rescuing her he ends up captured himself, but fortunately his quick wits help maneuver them out. They (and his friends who come in after him) discover that the whole area is somehow reflecting Arthurian legends, if rather clumsily. The explanation is rather pathetic as it turns out, and as I implied above, though it's logical enough in its way I found it disappointing.

"Bruce Duncan's" Mirror Image, on the other hand, is utter garbage, definitely fit to stand with the worst "novels", or novellas more accurately, that I have ever read. I should note that "Bruce Duncan" is a pseudonym for Irving Greenfield (1928-2020) a prolific author of low-end paperbacks: soft porn, historical fantasy, and SF. I haven't read his other work, and it may well be better than this, though I doubt it's all that good. He may be best known for the Depth Force series, which seems to be techno-thrillers of a nautical nature. 

Mirror Image opens with a sailor on leave from an advanced submarine. He's received a Dear John letter, so he is ripe for seduction by the stripper at the bar he's visiting. But she turns out to be an android, operated by aliens. Soon the sailor is replaced by another android, and planted on the submarine. The idea is that the aliens will take over the Earth using the advanced weapons on the sub. And what do they want Earth for? Real Estate? No. Slaves? No. Natural resources? Not really -- instead, somehow they plan to suck energy (of unspecified form) from it, leaving it a ruined husk. Eh???

The android sailor clumsily takes over the ship, only to be foiled by the plucky humans, and luck, and auctorial convenience. There is also a subplot with a New York detective investigating the dead bodies of the real stripper and the real sailor when they turn up, but that goes nowhere -- just a way to fill up enough pages that the book could be published, I think. Ick -- a horrid effort.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Ace Double Reviews, 76: The World of Null-A, by A. E. Van Vogt/The Universe Maker, by A. E. Van Vogt

Time for another resurrected Ace Double Review from almost two decades ago. This one is a pretty significant Ace Double in SF history.

Ace Double Reviews, 76: The World of Null-A, by A. E. Van Vogt/The Universe Maker, by A. E. Van Vogt (#D-31, 1953, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This is an early Ace Double that qualifies as a particularly important one in that it reprints one of the most famous of 1940s SF novels, backed with another apparently new (though based on a shorter novella) novel by the A. E. Van Vogt. The World of Null-A, in this edition, first published in 1948 by Simon and Schuster, is about 67,000 words long -- apparently this is slightly shorter than, and in other ways considerably revised from, the original 1945 Astounding serial. The Universe Maker is about 50,000 words long. It is an expansion of a novella published in the January 1950 issue of Startling Stories: "The Shadow Men". (I will note that the title of The Universe Maker is given as simply Universe Maker on the cover and spine of the Ace Double, but The Universe Maker on the title page, and also on later editions.)

Oh, wow. I'm in Damon Knight territory now. The World of Null-A is one of those SF classics that I had never read. I suspect, as with many such, I missed my time -- I might have loved it at 14. But having read it first at age 46 I must confess to being more bothered by the preposterousness than thrilled by the audacity. For all that it must be said that there is considerable audacity to the telling -- it is an exciting story, and based on interesting but to my mind mostly silly ideas. Quite often I simply snorted to myself: "That's ridiculous!" -- had I approached the novel earlier I might instead have whistled to myself "Wow, that's cool!".

The novel opens with Gilbert Gosseyn in a hotel room in the City of the Machine. He is planning to participate in the Games the Machine runs every year. These games determine how well integrated one's brain is according to Non-Aristotelian principles -- or Null-A (or A with a bar over the top). The top winners get to go to Venus to join the colony built on Null-A principles established there. Gosseyn's wife Patricia Hardie has just died ... or so he thinks. Then another man accuses him of lying about his identity -- in particular, everyone knows that Patricia Hardie, the beautiful daughter of the President, is alive.

Before long Gosseyn is on the run. His allies seem to include the Machine, and a mysterious girl he meets while hiding out. But this girl turns out to be Patricia Hardie ... and the Machine is suspect. It seems some Game winners have cheated. Then Gosseyn is killed.

And ends up on Venus -- how, neither he nor the reader knows. He is still in peril on Venus, a target of, it now seems, aliens who feel threatened by humanity's potential power if Null-A really becomes generally accepted. They have infiltrated Earth's government, and are ready to attack Venus. It seems there are some resistors, possibly including Patricia and her boyfriend Crang. But the most important man of all is -- of course -- Gosseyn. Not only is there the mystery of his reincarnation, there is the anomalous structure in his brain ...

And so it goes -- Gosseyn returns to Earth -- people are assassinated and Gosseyn is blamed -- Patricia Hardie either is or isn't an ally -- the Games Machine is destroyed -- Gosseyn learns more of the aliens and of the way Earth society has been undermined -- and Gosseyn gets closer to learning who has been pulling his strings all along.

People sometime accuse Van Vogt of just making stuff up as he goes along. I don't think that's really true, and indeed by the end some of the sillier early stuff almost (but not quite) makes sense. Certainly the story is ambitious -- it's just that its ambition is in the service of kind of silly stuff. Gosseyn, notably, is nearly powerless throughout (as even he notes): he never knows what he's doing or why, which makes the final revelation a bit cute. This revelation, to be sure, is echoed at the end of the other novel in this set.

The Universe Maker is accompanied by a brief introduction from Forrest J. Ackerman, in which Ackerman, ever clumsy with words, notes that in this book Van Vogt "fictionizes some of the startling concepts of Scientology". It seems likely that the Scientology bits were added in the revision, as Hubbard's first Dianetics article appeared a couple of months after "The Shadow Men", but I haven't seen the earlier version, so I can't say for sure. (Van Vogt was a fairly early adopter of Scientology.)

In The Universe Maker, Morton Cargill, driving while drunk, causes the death of a young woman he picked up in a bar. Suddenly he finds himself centuries in the future. Apparently he has been sentenced to be killed, as part of the psychiatric treatment of the woman he killed, or perhaps a descendant.

He manages to escape, with the help of another young woman. But he doesn't trust her either, and escapes again, only to be enslaved by a rather trailer-trash couple of people, a man and his daughter who are "Planiacs" or "Floaters": they live nomadic lives in airships. He gains the upper hand soon enough, partly be an implicit promise to marry the daughter, and he learns that there is a conflict between three elements of this future society: the Planiacs, the Tweeners, who live in cities, and the Shadow Men, who can take on other forms and who seem sinisterly to be in control. He begins to work to foment a revolution, when he is snatched back in time again, to the day before his scheduled murder.

Escaping again, he this time stays with the woman who helps him, who turns out to be a Tweener involved with their war against the Shadows. He is also visited by what seem dreams of the future, in which he is urged to save the world by helping the Tweeners beat the Shadows. And indeed he helps them plan an attack on the Shadow city, but he has misgiving. And when at last he reaches the Shadow City, he is in for a surprise ... not to mention a revelation about the real person in charge of all this gadding about in time ... who is -- revelation after spoiler space at the end.

This novel has ideas pretty much as wild as those in The World of Null-A, but not quite as interesting. Nor are there quite as many new developments. I'm sure that's why The World of Null-A is more famous -- and indeed, I liked it a lot more than The Universe Maker. But there is no mistaking that the two novels are by the same author!

Now, the revelation at the end of both novels ...


The unseen hand pulling all the strings, in each case, is the protagonist himself (without his point-of-view self knowing, to be sure!)