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!)

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Ace Double Reviews, 57: The Million Year Hunt, by Kenneth Bulmer/Ships to the Stars, by Fritz Leiber

After a long hiatus, I've decide to resurrect another of my old Ace Double reviews. 

Ace Double Reviews, 57: The Million Year Hunt, by Kenneth Bulmer/Ships to the Stars, by Fritz Leiber (#F-285, 1964, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

[covers by Ed Emshwiller and Jack Gaughan]
This Ace Double backs a fixup novel by Kenneth Bulmer with a story collection by the great Fritz Leiber. The Million Year Hunt is about 47,000 words long. The stories in Ships to the Stars come to just over 40,000 words.

Some years back I read a number of issues of the British magazine Science Fiction Adventures. In one of them (#26, from 1962) I read a story by "Nelson Sherwood" called "Scarlet Denial". It was quite clear that that story must have had a sequel, and possibly a prequel. It turns out that it did have a sequel, which appeared in #28, called "Scarlet Dawn". "Nelson Sherwood" was a pseudonym for Kenneth Bulmer, a very prolific British author whom I have discussed previously in these reviews. When I asked, elsewhere, if a book version of the two Scarlet stories existed, the late Ian Covell answered (eventually ) that they had become the Ace Double The Million Year Hunt. I decided to look up that book, and I didn't have to look far! It turns out I had it already -- doubtless I bought it with the Leiber collection on the reverse side in mind.

As far as I can tell, the book The Million Year Hunt includes "Scarlet Denial" unchanged. I don't have a copy of "Scarlet Dawn", but I assume it too is unchanged, and that the novel is a simple concatenation of the two stories.

I'll quote my review of "Scarlet Denial": This particular story is set in a colonized galaxy. The colony planets are garrisoned by Galactic Guardsmen, or Gee-Gees, much resented. The story opens with a young man named Arthur Ross Carson playing a practical joke (a hotfoot) on a Guardsman. Unfortunately, at about the same time the local governor is assassinated, and even more unfortunately, it is not Carson but his girlfriend who is suspected of playing the joke as a diversion in aid of the assassin. Carson confesses to try to get his girlfriend off, but before the administrative wheels grind sufficiently, she has been tortured to death by another organization, the Statque, which is charged with maintaining the "Status Quo" in the Galaxy. Understandably enough, Carson goes a bit crazy, and runs away, in the process stumbling at random through a matter transmitter to another planet.

That's kind of a dark beginning, eh? On the other planet, which turns out to be unsuitable for human life, Carson manages to become host to an ancient alien intelligence. With this intelligence's help, he is able to escape. The alien, named for some reason Sandoz, wishes Carson to help him find his lover, lost for thousands of years. Carson wishes to find and kill the Statque agent who killed HIS girlfriend. These wishes, by sheer luck, turn out to be fairly consistent with each other -- and Carson/Sandoz end up on an important planet -- where they learn that Carson has a rather different, implausible, destiny. The story ends with a certain amount of growing up by Carson, and the suggestion of a possible sequel.

I have no idea what the title means, by the way. At any rate, this is a fairly minor effort. The best part by far is the character of Sandoz, who is pretty funny at times.

"Scarlet Dawn" continues the Carson/Sandoz story. Carson follows the human who has ended up hosting Sandoz's lover to another planet. Sadly, it turns out that this host is a brain-damaged, and dying, child. It is Sandoz's wish, not surprisingly, that Carson marry his lover's host -- but the current host is unacceptable.

Carson is still in love with his murdered girlfriend. But on this new planet, he finds himself pursued by a woman who reminds him unaccountably of that girlfriend -- only better. But he is also still pursued by the evil Statque. It turns out, natch, that there is a reason he fell in love with his original girlfriend, and an even better reason he prefers this new girl. All tied into his ultimate destiny, hinted at in "Scarlet Denial". But before that can be resolved, he must deal with the Statque ...

The sequel is a lesser work, a more or less competent and by-the-numbers resolution of the plot elements left hanging from the first half, but not really as interesting.

Ships to the Stars collects six Leiber stories, dating from 1950 through 1962. None of them qualify as major Leiber, but they are decent work, as one would certainly expect. I'll treat them one by one.

"Dr. Kometevsky's Day" (Galaxy, February 1952) 7200 words

This is a Velikovskian story (the Dr. Kometevsky of the title is transparently Velikovsky). At some time in the future, the members of a group marriage are among those who realize, against their will, that the planets are of a sudden acting like "Dr. Kometevsky" predicted -- beginning with the disappearance of Phobos and Deimos. The explanation is not quite what Velikovsky might have predicted (and the story as a whole is profoundly skeptical of Velikovsky). It's interesting enough, but not special -- more interesting, perhaps, is the look at the dynamics of a group marriage.

"The Big Trek" (F&SF, October 1957) 1700 words

A curious little piece, almost a precursor of the New Wave. The viewpoint character becomes part of a multi-species "trek" across what seems to be a devastated Earth -- the moral being the value of continued exploration of space as opposed to stagnation on Earth and the concomitant destruction of Earth.

"The Enchanted Forest" (Astounding, October 1950) 7400 words

A curious story about a far future man who conceives of himself as a "Wild One" in a regimented society. He has escaped, carrying the "seed" of his fellow Wild Ones, and he ends up on a mysterious planet, encountering what seem to be the same people again and again, in a sort of medieval milieu. The explanation is satisfactorily SFnal, but not terribly interesting.

"Deadly Moon" (Fantastic, November 1960) 10300 words 

Perhaps this story could be described as "Fortean". A psychiatrist is treating the daughter of an astronomer. She has been dreaming of a "spider" in the Moon, while her husband, an astronaut, flies one of the first ships around the moon. Natch, her supposedly mad fears turn out to be real ...

"The Snowbank Orbit" (If, September 1962) 5900 words

The Solar System is under attack by inscrutable aliens, and a ship that was intended by be a Sun explorer is suddenly an unlikely warship, drifting near Uranus. The captain's desperate maneuver around the big cold planet ends up revealing something of the true and somewhat surprising nature of the aliens. A Leiber attempt at something of a hard SF story that didn't come off for me.

"The Ship Sails at Midnight" (Fantastic Adventures, September 1950) 8200 words

This story struck me as almost a Sturgeon pastiche, but if written in 1950 it predated most of the stories one would describe as characteristically "Sturgeonesque". A group of four somewhat Bohemian young people encounter a mysterious and beautiful woman, shortly after some UFO reports. She inspires them to think differently than they have, to become truly original rather than tiredly retreading fashionable ideas. The narrator falls in love with her and she with him. But is she really human? And what happens when her fellows finally return? And can humans really free themselves from their natures?

I think this easily the best story in this book, and as I said, very Sturgeonesque.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Six Neptune's Reach stories by Gregory Feeley

Short Stories Review: Six Neptune's Reach stories by Gregory Feeley

a review by Rich Horton

Gregory Feeley has been working on a novel to be called Neptune's Reach for nearly four decades now, and it has finally been completed. Much of the novel (as well as, I believe, some pendants) has appeared as short stories in Asimov's, Analog, and Clarkesworld. This novel has just been completed, and these six stories from 2021 through 2023 are among the last parts of the novel (or are perhaps pendants.)* As with the entirety of this work, they are ambitious and surprising and present a vision of the colonization of the outer Solar System that both stands with a long SF tradition and strikes new ground -- new modes of habitation, new forms of life and intelligence, new philosophies of existence and adaptation compete and cooperate. Presumably the finished novel will be (and has been) revised to some extent from the published stories, but we can be confident it will be one of the most exciting uses of the "mosaic novel" form since Van Vogt more or less invented it.

(*I should note that two further stories are in inventory, at Clarkesworld and Asimov's, and presumably will appear sometime soon -- the novel, of course, will take longer to get into print.)

What the stories do, individually and as a whole, is present a compelling picture of a human (and non-human, and post-human) future, with adventure, fascinating speculative science, beautiful vistas of a a real yet alien setting, a vision of a future building to yet a farther future, political strife, generational strife, love stories, engineering, exploration, alternate intelligences, alternate body forms -- very much a celebration of sorts of medium-future (as opposed to near- or far-) SF. I am truly looking forward to the finished novel, to see how these stories, revised as they may or may not be, work together. In the mean time, here are very brief looks at the stories in this series from 2021 to the present. They are each impressive works on their own (though some, I think, do work better in the context of the rest of the novel) and they make it clear that the finished work will stand as one of the most impressive stories of  expansion into the Outer System in SF history. (The first snippet here is taken from my Locus review -- the others are all from after my reviewing time.)

"The Children of the Wind" (Asimov's, July-August 2021)

Gregory Feeley’s long series of stories about a fraught attempt to colonize the environs of Neptune continues with “The Children of the Wind”. This story concerns the events that precipitated the action of last year’s “Wandering Rocks” – an uprising/riot/revolution on the Centaur which ended up with many of the children of the original crew leaving. This story reflects the confusing happenings of that critical day through a series of viewpoint characters, and never tells us how they coalesce, nor gives us a definitive description of what went on. The result is an appropriately chaotic narrative, reflecting the scary and ambiguous actions through characters who truly don’t understand. The whole thing shows a microcosmic society as riven by class, age, and race divisions as any human society – and for me, it simply hones my desire to see the eventual complete novel that is coming.

"In a Net I Seek to Hold the Wind" (Clarkesworld, September 2021)

Set on and near the tiny moon Galatea, a man remembers the building of a skyhook (space elevator) into the depths of Neptune -- then wakens from a Mind-induced figment to realize this never happened, but the Minds wanted to understand his thoughts about it. And we see his circumstances -- a "sixth" of a group working on Galatea, making it habitable, planning for future projects -- his skyhook dream or more likely a different one -- discussing fiction and the Minds with another, younger, person; thinking of children with his lover -- and then an accident intervenes. This is one of the less self-contained of these Neptune stories, but it remains fascinating simply building our picture of the beings and technology of Neptune's reaches.

"The Silent Strength of Things" (Clarkesworld, October 2022)

This story is told from the POV of an entity called Kitsune, which lives on the moon Triton. It is engaged in a sort of battle with another entity, the Snow Woman. The Snow Woman is an AI charged with protecting Triton from organic contamination. Kitsune, who seems to have been created by the Minds (AIs originally created by humans, but which have become wholly independent since arriving in Neptune space) apparently escaped from them and is now resident on Triton, battling to "create mischief", and, more fundamentally, to survive. The battle of these two creatures is well-depicted -- and the result is something unexpected and quite different.

"A Stone's Throw" (Analog, September-October 2022)

This is a brief piece, nice work but reading like an outtake of sorts from the main action of the novel. (I have no idea whether or not this incident will appear in the final novel.) It tells of two lovers, who meet on the Centaur (the ship on which humans came to Neptune) but one of whom leaves with her people to settle a moon. The other schemes to find a way to reach that moon from the Centaur (very difficult due to orbital mechanics) -- and in the end has to settle for help from a Mind. The Mind is very intelligent -- but also has its own agenda.

"The Fortunate Isles" (Clarkesworld, January 2023)

This one feels like a capstone to the series -- perhaps it is intended as such. It's a framed story, and as with all the best framed stories, the frame is critical. It's told by someone from the far future, based on the diaries on one Hai, a light-footed human living in the "Heights" of Neptune space (that is, distantly orbiting Neptune.) And it's addressed to "an unadapted person" -- that is, one of us. Hai comes across a distress signal from six refugees, and of course rescues them. And finds out that he's been, essentially, press-ganged into supporting them in what they call "the Great Work". The rest of the story shows what work that might be, and where it is -- the depths of Neptune -- and hints at its real goals. I won't detail what's really involved, except to say that besides the cool hard SF nature of all this, the story's framing, and the way that turns our focus from the past of the novel (us) to the extended time taken by the novel (ending with Hai's mission) to the future, represented by the narrator and by the hints at a future unconceived of by those who began the journey to Neptune, or even by most of those who have made their homes (many differing homes for widely differing entities) there.

"The Breaking of the Vessels" (Asimov's, March-April 2023)

Here's a story that discusses the fate and dreams of the much-changed people -- or their descendants -- who left the Centaur and now inhabit varying kinds of homes in the Heights of Neptune -- ships, mostly, it seems, or tiny moons. They are human but radically different, spurning gravity, spurning individuality, accepting a continually changing environment as Neptune's divergent colonists plan and build different futures, futures very possibly far from Neptune, or Sol. Again, this is a story that for full appreciation depends on the rest of the novel (or so it seems to me) -- but it effectively evokes the themes of the entire book.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Novella Review: Two by Mark Tiedemann: "The Jazz Age" and "Exile's Grace"

Novella Review: Two by Mark Tiedemann: "The Jazz Age" and "Exile's Grace"

a review by Rich Horton

I'm continuing to look at some 2022 stories I had missed. So far they've all been novellas!

Mark W. Tiedemann had two novellas in Analog in 2022: "Exile's Grace" in the March/April issue, and "The Jazz Age" in November/December. He has had five stories overall in Analog in the past four years or so (with one other back in 2006) -- making him truly a member of the so-called Analog Mafia by now!

"Exile's Grace" is set at Karmeister's World, which is populated by a race, the Cloom, generally believed to be non-sapient. Quill's ship ends up laying over at the station there, as they need repairs, and another close station is closed. With a couple of weeks to cool his heels, he investigates a bit and finds, to his great surprise, that an old friend of his, Gel Willer, is a xenoarchaeologist -- and, more surprisingly still, she is the only one to have entered the enigmatic surface structure called "Ayer's Child". She emerged changed, and has stayed on Karmeister's World, keeping away from other humans while continuing to study the planet and the Cloom -- who themselves have changed ominously, becoming warlike.

Quill decides to try to contact Willer, who had been part of a group of spiritual seekers with him -- and with another man, Isher, who is also at Karmeister's and is one of a diverse group of people who idolize Willer, believing her time inside Ayer's Child has made her holy. Quill himself has turned in a different direction than Isher -- more or less abandoning his spiritual quest. But he takes the chance to illegally go down to the surface and meet Willer, who is willing to discuss her discoveries with him. Things are violently interrupted by a group of the Willer-fanatics, led by a sociopath with his own secret goals. Quill is tortured -- and when he manages to escape the only route he can take leads him inside Ayer's Child. 

The resolution -- turning on Quill's reaction to the same sort of revelation in Ayer's Child that Willer had, is a tad disappointing, but the story as a whole is intriguing. It's set in the same universe as Tiedemann's Secantis Sequence novels, as well as some stories from the 1990s, including at least one about Quill. Perhaps there will be more!

The other 2022 novella was still better, to my mind. "The Jazz Age" is set on Mars, some centuries in the future. Lerin Olva has been newly appointed head of his department in the bureau of Communications and Exocryptology. Their main focus is to better understand the language of the Trishti, aliens who had arrived decades earlier, promising humanity a place in the wider Galactic society once humans can develop a stardrive. Olva is struggling to adjust to his new position, and concerned that his wife resents the Trishti presence. And things get complicated when the head of the starship development project announces that they are ahead of schedule, and the stardrive is almost ready. 

Olva's wife, however, quickly realizes that the starship project cannot possibly be ready. And then, shockingly, the Trishti appear to be ready to leave. Panic sets in -- the starship head had made his announcement both for political advantage, and because he believed the Trishti would be motivated to help humans across the finish line. But they are saying that now that humans have succeeded, the Trishti can leave ... Meanwhile Olva is learning a lot of things he had been ignorant of: a sort of Trishti underground, for example, complete with Trishti/human musical collaboration. And some secrets his wife had of which he was unaware. And, finally, a key to more fully understand the Trishti religious document his department had been trying to translate comes to him.

The solution to all this is actually something fairly readily guessed (and it's not really the point of the story.) But the unveiling of all this is colorful and fun, and future Martian society depicted is neat, the aliens are a nice creation, and the conclusion that is, with difficulty, reached for is worthwhile and involving. Tiedemann's fairly traditional SFnal futures, both in his Secantis stories, and in this (which seems a standalone), are highly satisfying to a longtime SF reader like me, and they are in the service of character based stories with philosophical ambitions drawing both on the human characters and the SFnal furniture. Fun and thoughtful stuff!

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Novella Review: The Cottage in Omena, by Charles Andrew Oberndorf

Novella Review: The Cottage in Omena, by Charles Andrew Oberndorf

a review by Rich Horton

Charles Oberndorf's new novella (from the September/October 2022 F&SF) reads like a pandemic story -- well, it is a pandemic story, though I can't say whether it was directly inspired by COVID. (The central disease actually resembles the cordyceps from The Last of Us a bit more than COVID, but I'm sure the series isn't the source -- though perhaps Charlie's son Andrew, who came up with the idea (hence the byline nod) played the videogame.) But focusing on the terrible disease driving the plot might have us miss the beautifully handled character revelations that truly center the story.

As the story opens, Claire is heading to Grand Traverse Bay to see about selling her parents' vacation cottage. She had resisted for some time, despite her older sister's advice, and it takes a while before we learn what's up with that. But mentions of vaccinations and spraying for water fungus and hints of something terrible that happened to Claire mount ...

Well, I'll cut to the chase a bit: some five years prior, a fungus began infecting people with a compulsion to go to water, where usually they would drown -- and sometimes come back. Now there's vaccination and some treatments but the threat is by no means gone. And places by water are the most dangerous, as Claire knows only too well ... and its soon clear that her husband was one of the victims. 

The story alternates between the present day -- a reunion of sorts with another woman she knew from summers at the Bay -- not exactly a friend but, well, someone she knew, and a meeting with the real estate agent, and so on; plus flashbacks to five years before, as the mysterious plague spreads. We learn a bit about Claire's marriage, which seems pretty happy, and about Claire's memories of the Bay, and the times she had there. But there's something darker to be revealed, something truly wrenching, and a somewhat shocking event in the present. 

I won't say anything more about the story -- it's best to let the revelations come as part of reading. The story is beautifully written, and there's a quietude contrasted with horror that truly works. It's powerful, sad, scary: the blurb suggested Alice Munro crossed with Stephen King, and that seems fair -- and the Munro side dominates (a good thing: she's a truly great writer.) Certainly a novella worth a look at Hugo time!

Monday, March 6, 2023

A Quasi Belmont Double: A Pair From Space, by Robert Silverberg and James Blish

Review: A Pair From Space, by Robert Silverberg and James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

The most famous "double books" of all time are of course the Ace Doubles, which ran from about 1952 through 1973. Ace Doubles were bound tête-bêche -- so that each book had a front cover, rotated 180 degrees from the other. Ace Doubles were mostly Science Fiction (and Fantasy), but there were also plenty of Westerns and Mysteries published in that format. This format is often miscalled dos-à-dos (I confess I have made this mistake!) -- instead, dos-à-dos books are both upright but bound cleverly so that they meet in the middle. The best recent example I can think of is Theodora Goss's The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, which binds together the same story from the point of view of each lover.

There was a fairly short-lived series of double books published between 1967 and 1969, 8 books in all (so 16 titles), from the low end publisher Belmont. These are called Belmont Doubles. The individual stories -- usually novella length -- were sometimes magazine reprints, though a number of them were original to Belmont. The books were not bound either tête-bêche or dos-à-dos, but simply sequentially. The covers highlighted both titles, with separate illustrations, either one on the top and one on the bottom, or side to side. I will say that overall the quality of these books was not very high -- Harlan Ellison famously would offer to buy copies of his Belmont Double Doomsman from fans who asked him to sign it -- and he would then rip it in half, leaving the other story (Lee Hoffman's Telepower) intact. (Reportedly, Hoffman was less than pleased with Ellison's stunt.) Still, some decent work was reprinted here.

I have recently discovered a curious Belmont publication that is not one of the official Belmont Doubles. This is A Pair From Space, a 1965 omnibus featuring novellas by James Blish and Robert Silverberg. Both novellas were originally published in the 1950s. James Blish's "Giants in the Earth" first appeared as "Beanstalk" in the Kendall Foster Crossen anthology Future Tense in 1952, and was reprinted as "Giants in the Earth" in Science Fiction Stories for January, 1956. Robert Silverberg's "We, the Marauders" first appeared (with the same title) in Science Fiction Quarterly for January, 1958. (Science Fiction Quarterly and Science Fiction Stories were sister magazines, published by Columbia, which was the predecessor company to Belmont.) It strikes me that A Pair From Space is almost a sort of trial run for the Belmont Doubles.

As the cover picture shows, the two stories are presented top-to-bottom, each with its own illustration. That said, the illustrations are mixed up -- the one for "Giants in the Earth" is at the bottom, but "Giants in the Earth" is listed first. Both novellas were separately published as novels, though they got there in slightly different ways. Silverberg's "We, the Marauders" was cut from the text of his novel Invaders from Earth, which appeared as half an Ace Double in 1958. The novel was about 52,000 words long -- the magazine version was about 38,000 words. At this late date, Silverberg can't recall whether he or editor Robert A. W. Lowndes made the cuts -- but there are quite significant changes to the plot. As for "Giants in the Earth" aka "Beanstalk", it was expanded in 1961, from some 32,000 words to perhaps 44,000 words, and published as Titan's Daughter. (A later edition changed the title slightly to Titans' Daughter -- possibly simply a typo though the revised title does make sense.) This change keeps the basic plot intact, but adds details throughout -- some just padding, but some sensible clarifications or worthwhile if minor plot additions.

As for the actual stories in this book -- I discuss them both in separate posts. 

Invaders From Earth/"We, The Marauders"

Titan's Daughter/"Giants in the Earth" aka "Beanstalk"

Review: Titan's Daughter, by James Blish

Review: Titan's Daughter, by James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

Titan's Daughter is a 1961 novel by James Blish. It is an organic expansion of a novella first published in 1952, "Beanstalk", which has also appeared under the title "Giants in the Earth". By "organic" I mean that the expansion -- from perhaps 32,000 words to about 44,000 words -- is achieved by adding paragraphs throughout the story, but there are no changes in the basic plot, and the stories begin and end at the same places. I'd say that some of the new words are sheer padding, but some are valuable additions, clarifying the story, describing some additional details, or making things slightly more consistent with scientific changes in the decade or so between the two publications.

As the story opens, we are introduced to Sena Carlin coming out of Biology Hall at Dunhill University. She is a giant -- 9 feet tall in the original, 8 feet tall in the revision; and she's older than a typical university student -- 40 in the original, 30 in the revision. We quickly gather that there is a small group of such giants, created by manipulation of their genes (or perhaps not! -- details in the novel) so that they are "tetraploid" instead of "diploid". Besides greater size and strength, tetraploidy allows considerable life extension. Not surprisingly, the giants are resented by much of the general population. They also have low fertility.

Sena and her lover Sam discuss their inability to buy a house -- due to prejudice. And Sam -- who is the real protagonist of the novel, despite the title (and jacket copy) suggesting that would be Sena -- heads off to the latest moneymaking idea -- football games featuring the giants -- while we meet Dr. Fred, the leader of the project that created the giants, and Maurey, an older and particularly intelligent giant. The plot quickly takes shape -- Maurey is convinced that the giants will never have a place in diploid human society, and he is scheming to somehow make the giants independent of the diploids -- perhaps a moon colony?

The story proceeds through Sam's invention of a Newton's Third Law violating force projector, continued development of the football scheme, and Maurey's discovery of both Sam's device (Maurey immediately understands its weapon potential) and of Sena's true genetic characteristics -- she is NOT, apparently, a tetraploid. Maurey uses this knowledge to suggest that Sam and Sena cannot get married, and then takes the step of murdering Dr. Fred, and framing Sam for the murder. (The problem being that Dr. Fred understands the actual meaning of Sena's genetics, and Maurey either misunderstands for purposely conceals this -- because the final implication is that the giants and diploid humans are really still the same species, and eventually the benefits of what is called "tetraploidy" will spread throughout humanity.) 

The novel's resolution, then, involves Sam's trial for murder, and Maurey's attempts to use the fallout from that to cause open war between the tetraploids and diploids. (There's also a cute giant dog hero.) There's plenty of action, and plenty of SFnal technology in addition to the speculation about polyploidy.

James Blish is a writer whose output I find wildly varying in quality. Works like The Night Shapes, and the YA novels Mission to the Heart Stars and The Vanished Jet, are quite terrible. But his best work is remarkable: A Case of Conscience, The Seedling Stars, Cities in FlightDr. Mirabilis, and more, including short stories like "Common Time", "Beep", and "A Style in Treason". Titan's Daughter is somewhere in the middle ground -- a readable work with some interesting ideas (although I doubt the scientific plausibility of much of it), well told and exciting, but minor stuff.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Novella Review: These Prisoning Hills, by Christopher Rowe

Review: These Prisoning Hills, by Christopher Rowe

a review by Rich Horton

Here's the first of a few reviews I plan, on short fiction from 2022. I'm still behind on that, mind you! But these are some good ones, as Hugo nomination season is upon us. (I've actually already reviewed one 2022 novella, a fine one, Kelly Robson's High Times in the Low Parliament.)

Christopher Rowe first made a big impression on me with a remarkable and very strange novelette called "The Voluntary State", back in 2004. It’s set in a very altered future Tennessee, with radical biological engineering affecting everything from art to cars to politics -- and the hero, unwitting, is witness to a revolution of sorts. It’s a story that describes itself far better than I can hope to describe it. I will quote Jonathan Strahan however: "reading ‘‘The Voluntary State’’ was not unlike reading ‘‘Scanners Live in Vain’’ for the first time – you were either jazzed or mystified" -- that is remarkable (and justified) praise.

Rowe has now returned to that milieu twice -- back in 2017 with "The Border State", and now with this 2022 novella, "These Prisoning Hills". This latest story centers on Marcia, a 60-something woman serving as county agent for her Kentucky county, which is still sparsely populated decades after the end of the First Athena War. Now a Federal agent has shown up, needing a guide into a still quarantined area, where there seems likely to be a terrifying piece of Athena tech -- and the previous Federals to try to recover it have not returned.

The novella proceeds on two tracks -- one is a series of glimpses into Marcia's time fighting in the First Athena War, which gives hints of nature of the AI Athena Parthenus that created the "Voluntary State", based in Tennessee, and of the strange tech this AI created; as well as a look at some of the fighters on the Federal side, especially the Kentucky based Owls and Crows. The other track follows Marcia and some Federals as well as some low-level AIs called dependents, which have been used to help "reseed" places destroyed in the war, as they track down the missing Federals, and the Athena tech they were after. This proves to be something worse than they had feared, and the story resolves with a scary and exciting conclusion, in which Marcia must make a risky gamble -- with perhaps ambiguous results.

This is a powerful story of a strange future grounded with by the believable characters, especially Marcia and her ex-husband Carter: people of a certain age (OK, my age!) who've been through a lot and just keep going, with no illusions. There is a wildness to this future, and clearly both menace and promise. Among the most interesting characters are a group we hardly hear from -- except their wonderful last line. Highly recommended.