Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Convention Report: Readercon 32, July 2023

Readercon 2023

Readercon is a Science Fiction convention focused on the written word. I had intended to come to it for a long time, but various things intervened, most obviously in recent years the pandemic. This year I finally made it. One reason is that I had an official (of sorts) role -- I am a member of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award jury, and that award is presented at Readercon. 


Readercon is held in the Boston area, lately in Quincy, a suburb to Boston's south. As it happens, my father was born in Massachusetts, in Hadley in the west central part of the state. I decided to come in on Thursday and head out to Hadley to see the house Dad grew up in. Jim Cambias, an SF writer I've known for a number of years, also lives in that area, and he had recommended a used book store in Hadley, Grey Matter. I stopped first at my Dad's old house -- I had visited it a couple of times when my Nana was still alive, in 1969 and 1973. (Also in 1960, when my Poppy was also alive, but I don't remember that!) The house is, remarkably, still there, though as the picture here shows, maybe not in such great condition. Right across the street is Hopkins Academy -- where Nana taught and Dad went to school. Founded in 1664!

Then I went on to Grey Matter, and met up with Jim. It is indeed an excellent used book store, and I bought severeal books (Cather's Song of the Lark, Charlotte Bronte's Villette, a few more.) Jim had invited my to dinner at his house, and he went home to start cooking. To give him some time, I headed to Easthampton, and Kelly Link and Gavin Grant's bookstore, Book Moon. I bought another book (Prodigies, by Angelica Gorodischer) and chatted with Kelly and Gavin for a while. 

Dinner (lamb with chickpeas) was wonderful. Jim's wife Diane Kelly and their son Robert were there as well, and the conversation was excellent too, touching on such things as Diane's yeoman efforts to introduce her students to classic movies. Then I headed to Quincy -- I had a 9 o'clock panel, on The Trashy and the Sublime, that is, Highbrow vs. Lowbrow literature. (I suppose the general consensus is that historically that distinction has been so class-marked as to be all but meaningless; which is a good observation. That said, I still believe there is a worthwhile distinction -- I don't think that Dan Brown and George Eliot, just as an example, are on a similar level, just because Brown sold a whole lot of books.) Fellow panelists were Gillian Daniels, Emma J. Gibbin, and Yves Meynard.

After the panel I spent a nice time talking to Greg Feeley, whom I have known for some time both online and in-person, Neil Clarke (same), and Michael Dirda, who I have known online for a while but was delighted to meet for the first time in person. And then I finally checked into my hotel room! (I got to the con with no time to spare to, you know, put my suitcase in my bedroom, before the panel.)


My only official obligation on Friday was the announcement of the Cordwainer Smith award, part of the opening ceremonies (at 10 PM!) So the rest of the day was free, for panels, food, book shopping, etc.

I decided to do breakfast at the hotel (the nearest restaurants required driving, unless you were Scott Edelman.) It was (as expected) pretty routine, and overpriced. I did take the time to go through the dealers' room. As you might hope, it's very book-focused at Readercon. I didn't buy a whole lot. (Well, I'll show a picture of all the books I got later on. Remember -- some were free!) Much of the day ended up in extended conversations. Which is really the point of a con anyway! 

I did attend the panel on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, featuring co-editor John Clute (who has been with the Encyclopedia since the first print edition in 1979) and managing editor Graham Sleight. The panel focussed on the recent transition to the Fourth Edition -- the first two editions (1979 and 1993) were print, in 2011 they went online with the support of Gollancz, in 2021 the Fourth Edition was established, independently. This is truly a fundamental resource, one I check constantly, and the work of maintaining it is literally endless. They rely primarily on contributions, and I do recommend you visit the site and contribute if you can. (It's pretty easy!) John and Graham told a lot of stories, discussed their methods, problems, focus. It was a wholly interesting panel. 

I also looked in on Jim Kelly's Kaffeeklatsch, and as it wasn't quite full, I joined it. Jim is always great to talk to -- we had several occasions for (all too brief) chats throught the con.

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant again, this time with Greg Feeley and his wife Pamela. I think this was the first time I've met Pam in person. We had a good conversation -- in many ways a continuing part of an ongoing conversation with Greg that last the whole con. As Greg put it, we "settled everyone's hash". The dinner -- was fine, but, of course, overpriced. Ah, yes, hotel restaurants.

Maybe this is the time to sneak in an announcement. One of the subjects that came up with multiple folks over the weekend was, well, the state of publishing. Given my age, and the age of many of my friends, the state of publishing for older writers is an issue. And -- well, it's affected me. Not because of my age, I hasten to add -- more, I think, a general malaise in the market for short fiction in print. My Best of the Year anthology series, which has run since 2006, 16 years worth through 2021 (19 books), has been, at least temporarily, discontinued. The 2021 book was electronic only -- pandemic supply issues (and pandemic personal issues, too) were a big reason. But my publisher, for various reasons, hasn't been ready to publish subsequent issues, and finally pulled the plug recently. This is a blow, needless to say. And it's a wider concern. Jonathan Strahan's BOTY has also been discontinued. Neil Clarke's continues, for now, as does John Joseph Adams' "Best American" book (a different, and quite valuable, beast.) And Allen Kaster has been doing a very solid series of books for a few years -- but I don't think his books get wide distribution. I think there's still a place for an anthology like mine -- SF and Fantasy -- and I hope to find a way to continue it, either with another publisher, or by some other avenue.

Having said that, I note that lots of great fiction is not finding a publisher. And -- for quite understandable reasons -- many of the authors who have lost their publishers are older. That doesn't mean their books aren't excellent -- it just means that publishers aren't getting in on the ground floor of an exciting career, they are instead publishing the last few books of a distinguished career. And perhaps that doesn't excite them as much. And now -- I hope this won't embarrass him -- I'll mention a novel Greg Feeley has written, Hamlet the Magician. I have had the chance to read an excerpt, and I have to say -- it's wonderful. It truly is. If the potential of that excerpt is maintained (and I don't see why it wouldn't be) this could be a true Fantasy classic. But ... it hasn't found a publisher. Let's just say -- I live in hope, and it's something I look forward to sometime reading in its full form.

Okay, enough of that industry talk! On to the Cordwainer Smith Award. It was exciting to give this in person. Ann VanderMeer and I presented it, representing the jury (the other two members, Steven H Silver and Grant Thiessen, were not present.) The winner is Josephine Saxton. I give a fuller acount here.

Immediately following was a new Readercon "Meet the Prose" event. In the past this was just a gathering, where fans and prose mingled. This year they tried a sort of "speed dating" format -- three pros sat at a table, and fans in groups of three sat in for a few minutes. I confess I was skeptical and didn't sign up myself (in part because I don't think I'm enough of a "pro" that folks would want to "meet" me) -- but by all accounts it was quite successful. I spent some time chatting with folks in the con space, and some time at the bar -- or at the nice outdoor patio space, but didn't stay too late.


This was my heavy panel schedule day. I had a very good night's sleep, and skipped breakfast -- I really wasn't hungry. I went to the con space at 11 and watched the panel about Arthur Machen. I've been aware of Machen for a long time, but have never tried him. But this panel really convinced me I should try him -- and indeed, I have a copy of The Great God Pan/The Hill of Dreams on its way to me! The panelists were Michael Cisco, Elizabeth Hand, Michael Dirda, The Joey Zone, and Henry Wessells. It occurs to me that there is a mode of horror that works for me -- Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, Kelly Link, and, yes, Elizabeth Hand. Perhaps my avoidance of horror is based on the slasher stuff I remember from the late '90s (and some of the super low-end magazines I reviewed for Tangent!) Anyway, Machen sounds totally worth a look.

My three panels were at 3, 6, and 8. The first was Non-Narrative Fiction -- that is, stories told through things like emails, blog posts, FAQs, found objects, etc. (And letters!) My fellow panelists were MJ Cunniff, Sarah Pinsker, and Ken Schneyer. We had a good discussion citing examples of those stories, reasons why to use that sort of storytelling strategy, and so on. I moderated -- I hope moderately. I think it went well. 

Next was The Works of D. G. Compton -- who was the previous Cordwainer Smith Award winner. Readercon practice is to discuss the award winner at length at the con following the award. I moderated again. Fellow panelists were Brett Cox, Steve Popkes, and Greg Feeley. We each covered one of his novels at some length, and mentioned a few more. Novels mentioned were The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (and its sequel Windows), Chronocules, Ascendancies, and Farewell, Earth's Bliss. I mentioned David's new novel, And Here's Our Leo. Compton is a remarkable and original novelist, who really should be read more widely. 

My third panel was on Bodice Ripping, Hard Boiling, and other Improbable Literary Joys. The idea was to discuss clichés that are basically impossible, or, any lazy use of improbable or impossible or incorrect science (or history) in a story. Unfortunately a couple of panelists dropped out in advance because they wouldn't be able to make the convention, and another got sick and had to leave. So I was the only one left! I did the only thing I could, and asked the audience to help, and they came through excellently.

I didn't do breakfast, as I said, and there wasn't really time for dinner. But I did have a nice lunch, again at the hotel. I ate with Greg and Pam Feeley again, and also met for the first time a long-time Facebook friend, Hyson Concepcion. Also along were Steve Dooner, and (I hope I get the name right) Tom Olivieri. We had a good talk, about many subjects, a lot centered around teaching issues, as most everyone there was a teacher. (I'm not, but my family is chock-full of them -- my grandmother, my mother, my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law -- even my Dad taught community college classes on how to pass the state sanitation test for restaurant folks for years.) One big subject was AI, and students cheating via AI.

This time I stayed out pretty late, had some drinks and talked to lots of people, mostly on the patio. In particular I spent a long fun time talking with Sheila Williams.


Sunday was a light day. I did sleep late -- a good thing (especially as events turned out!) I didn't eat much, though I did have a cannoli provided by Scott Edelman. (Of course I said it would be better if I took the gun and left the cannoli.) (And alas I missed the donuts Scott brought the previous day.) The only panel I attended was a reading, by Rick Wilber, who I'm always glad to see, partly because he has St. Louis roots and indeed grew up just a couple of miles from where I have lived for the past nearly 30 years, and attended church at Mary Queen of Peace, very close to my house indeed. (Walking distance, actually, though a longish walk.) Rick read an intriguing time travel tale about a Scottish politician from the near future traveling back in time to about 210 A.D. and meeting (well, more than just meeting!) the Emperor Septimius Severus.

Oh, and I also checked in at the Serial Fiction panel, mainly to get a chance to talk to Kate Nepveu, a veteran of the glory days of Usenet, especially rec.arts.sf.written. It was neat seeing her. I also talked for a while with another rasfw vet, Paula Lieberman. 

Other than that, more conversations, mostly farewells. I did talk for some time to my friends Claire Cooney and Carlos Hernandez, who made me insanely jealous telling of seeing the new production of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Sweeney Todd is one of my favorite musicals (maybe my favorite), and I've seen it twice in St. Louis, at the Opera Theatre and at the Muny (two diametrically opposite venues!) -- plus of course I've seen the movie. This new production seems tremendous.

The meat of the weekend, of course, was conversation. That's what makes a con! I'll try to list everyone I spoke with, some old friends, some new -- but I know I'll forget some. (I really should either take notes or write these things immediately I come home!) So -- I talked with Greg and Pam Feeley, Michael Dirda, Neil Clarke, Mark Pitman, Barney Dannelke, Claire Cooney, Carlos Hernandez, Sarah Smith, Rick Wilber, Jim Kelly, Ken Schneyer, Hyson Concepcion, Steve Dooner, Tom Olivieri, John Clute, Elizabeth Hand (all too briefly), Kate Nepveu, Paula Lieberman, Sheila Williams, Gary Wolfe, Dale Haines, Ann VanderMeer, Ellen Datlow, Jeffrey Ford, Sally Kobee, Joseph Berlant, Peter Halasz, Henry Wessells, Sarah Pinsker, Alexander Jablokov, A. T. Greenblatt (all too briefly), Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz (both too briefly as well!), Diane Martin, Ellen Kushner, Eileen Gunn, Elizabeth Bear, Yves Meynard, Gillian Daniels, Gwynne Garfinkle, Michael Swanwick, Greer Gilman, Robert Redick, Arula Ratnakar, Scott Andrews, Scott Edelman, Zig Zag Clayborne. And Greg Bossert!

There were some people I hoped to see but didn't quite connect with: Matthew Kressel, Arley Sorg, Chris Brown, Karen Heuler, Christopher Mark Rose, Filip Hadar Drnovsek Zorko, John Wiswell, Robert Kilheffer, Nikhil Singh, Eric Schaller, Benjamin Rosenbaum. There was one other person I would have dearly dearly loved to meet -- he was listed among the participants, but I don't know if he made it: Eugene Mirabelli.

Oh, and I bought some books, and I got some for free. I'll just post a picture! I guess I should mention the titles: the blank one is Tales of Adventurers, by Geoffrey Household. There's Alexander's Bridge and The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather; The Mote in Time's Eye, by Gerard Klein; issues of If and F&SF; Villette, by Charlotte Bronte; Prodigies, by Angelica Gorodischer; Death Goes to the Dogs, by Anna Tambour; Outspoken Writers books by Karen Joy Fowler and Paul Park; The Sea, by John Banville (cleverly shown upside down in the picture!) and Beyond the Black Stump, by Nevil Shute.

Then came the trip home. Well. As you may have heard, there's been some rain recently in the Northeast. Lots of rain. And there was a lot on Sunday. I started getting messages from Southwest Airlines that there might be delays at the airport. I called them, and it looked like the flight I was taking would be delayed by three hours out of Boston. It connected through Chicago Midway. That flight was delayed too -- but only by one hour. You can do the math and see that I wasn't going to make that connection. It looked like I had two options ... stay in Boston for another day and catch a flight out at ... 7:30 PM Monday. Or catch the flight to Chicago, miss my connection, and sleep in the airport and catch an early flight the next morning. I even called my brother Pat, who lives in the city, to see if I could stay with him instead of the airport, but there were, er, complications! 

I decided to head to the airport, and see what would happen. I got there, turned in the rental car, and got in Southwest's full service line. People in front of me had similar problems. One woman -- who looked like she might be from Germany -- spent 15 minutes at the counter, and suddenly the Southwest rep told her -- seeming surprised -- that he had a solution! She looked ecstatic, then rushed off to catch her new flight. The next was a family of three -- two adults and their young adult daughter. They seemed to be scheduled on the same flight to Chicago as I was, with similar connection problems. It looked like maybe the daughter could be put on a flight, but there wasn't room for all three. They left, disappointed. I went up to the counter, started to explain my problem, and the rep said, let me handle it. And within a minute or so he found a seat on a supposedly full nonstop flight to St. Louis. It was supposed to leave at 6:55 (and it was already 6:30 or so) but no problem, it was delayed a few hours. I was delighted to take it!

So I went through security, and to the gate, and the flight was leaving at 11:10 or so, getting in to St. Louis after 1:00 AM. Hey, that beats sleeping at Midway Airport and not getting to St. Louis until early the next morning! So I tried to get some dinner -- went to a pizza place in the airport which as soon as I walked up announced it was closed. The other restaurant had an enormous line. So I settle for a frankly terrible sandwich at a "New England Market" or something. And I sat in the lounge for a few hours. I did get to talk to a youth hockey team from Ottawa. I had actually seen a couple of them in the hotel, and they had said they were Blues fans (because the Senators are so bad.) They were in Boston for a tournament, and now were heading to St. Louis for another tournament. Nice kids, and they got my Letterkenny references instantly.

Finally time came for the flight. The flight attendant was nervous as we boarded -- weather was coming to St. Louis, and if we didn't get there in time we might have been diverted to Indianapolis. But, thankfully, we got in just in time. There was thunder and lightning -- but mostly to the south. Mary Ann picked me up, I went home -- and slept in my own bed!

Bottom line is simple -- this was a wonderful convention, I'm thrilled to have gone, the weekend was great fun -- and it's just so cool to be connected to my SF community after the years of the pandemic.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Review: White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link

White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link

a review by Rich Horton

White Cat, Black Dog is Kelly Link's fifth full-length collection. These books represent probably the most impressive portfolio of short fiction from the past quarter century. They are witty and sometimes sad, wildly imaginative, often horror-tinged, sometimes comic, sometimes surrealistic. They are character stories and idea stories, engaging, beautifully written, and above all strange. 

The conceit behind this book is stories based on fairy tales. Each source work is identified -- which is a good thing, because the connections are not always obvious. Link's primary modes are fantasy and horror, but her work does sometimes touch on SF. Conceit or no conceit, the collection is fully the equal of her previous books -- every story is intriguing, draws the reader in, offers mysteries, doesn't always offer solutions, gives us characters we care for but question, shows us wonder and beauty and fear. I'll treat the stories mostly in order of the TOC, except I'm saving the best for last.

"The White Cat’s Divorce" is good satirical fun, based on Madame D'Aulnoy's "The White Cat". A rich man decides to put his sons through trials to determine his heir. As usual, the youngest son is the protagonist, and we see him go through his three trials -- though mostly he spends his time at a strange house he ends up at in a snowstorm, occupied by intelligent cats. A particular white cat befriends him (and more, perhaps), and the young man stays with her until he must return to his father. As we expect, the rich man betrays his sons each time, setting another task. The white cat, of course, is the fulcrum of the eventual resolution of that problem. This is smart stuff, very funny when it wants to be, appropriately dark when it wants to be.

The only story original to this volume is "Prince Hat Underground", based on "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" (or perhaps its Swedish variant, "Prince Hat Under the Ground".) Prince Hat and Gary are a gay couple who've been together for decades. One day they are out together and a woman comes up to them -- someone who clearly knows Prince Hat. Gary knows Prince Hat has a past, and gathers this woman is part of that past, so is perhaps not surprised when Prince Hat vanishes. But Gary determines to follow him, and finds his way to Iceland, and to a world under the ground. This is a story carried by the characters, who are a delight, and by the exceptionally witty prose. And it is profoundly grounded, and sensible.

"The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear" is based -- you guessed it! -- on "The Boy Who Did Not Know Fear." Abby is an academic who gets stranded in Detroit after a conference. For strange reasons no flights leave for days, and she spends her time in her hotel, missing her wife and daughter. And finally gets a flight home. Nothing could sound less fantastical -- and maybe the story really isn't fantastical. But there are details -- for instance, the way Abby is marooned in Detroit begins to seem almost like a horror story. More, there is something implied but not said about the nature of this world ... Anyway, it’s a Kelly Link story, which by itself is recommendation enough, and it’s strange but homey in a very Kelly Link way.

"The Game of Smash and Recovery" is a rare pure SF piece from Link, about a girl, Anat, and her older brother, Oscar, who live in what seems to be a spaceship orbiting an alien world. There are Handmaidens (who might be robots, but who knows?) and Vampires (who might be aliens, but who knows?), and Oscar keeps promising Anat that their parents will soon return... The real question is "What is Anat?" -- and who knows? I was persistently reminded of Gene Wolfe, in all the best ways. Mysterious, moving, scary, and ever surprising. (I confess the link to the cited fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel", never occurred to me on first reading, and still is not clear to me.)

"The Lady and the Fox" is a "Tam Lin" story, and that's pretty unmistakable. Miranda is the daughter of Joanie, who was a dresser for the very rich Elspeth Honeywell, but Joanie is in a Thailand jail, and Miranda has been invited to spend Christmas with the Honeywells. Elspeth's son Michael is Miranda's friend, and the Honeywell family is intriguing but tiring, until Miranda meets a strange man, Fenny, outside the house ... Year after year she sees this unaging man, only at Christmas, and somehow he fascinates her. even as Michael is in love with her, and Miranda herself is making her own way in the world. A satisfying and involving piece.

"Skinder's Veil" tells of a Ph. D. student, Andy, who is struggling with his dissertation. He gets an offer from an old friend who is house-sitting in a remote location, to take over for her while she visits her sister. Andy gets there late, to find a note with strange instructions -- he must let anyone who visits into the house, except the owner, Skinder. And for a while this seems okay, especially when a young woman, Rose-Red, visits and invites herself into Andy's bed. But a bear visits too, and the bear has stories to tell. What is this story about? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to keep asking myself -- what is Andy's eventual fate? This is a weird one, and still fascinating.

I said I'd save the best story for last. "The White Road" is set in what seems a post-apocalyptic future. All technological devices don't work -- or are too dangerous to use, for reasons we eventually learn. The narrator is part of a traveling company of actors and singers. They are heading from Chattanooga to Memphis with a young man who has a job waiting there. We hear about the "White Road" that appears at certain times -- what it means takes a while to come clear. And we notice that every place seems to have a corpse rotting somewhere -- and these corpses need replacing. Various delays mean they get to a town where the narrator hopes to see a woman he loves -- but the town is deserted. And there is no corpse ... These corpses are important -- they keep some sort of monsters away. But they are actors -- one of them will pretend to be dead, and the others will mourn them. All this is deeply strange -- stranger than I've made it seem -- and the White Road is strange as well. And what happens: the playacting, the mourning -- the aftermath ... is a gut punch, deeply sad, oddly beautiful. This is one of the great recent stories, remarkably affecting, weird in the best, most complete, way. What's it about? Death. Guilt. Loss. Lots of things. Astonishing work.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award for 2023: Josephine Saxton

Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award for 2023: Josephine Saxton

I am a member of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award Jury. The award is intended to recognize a writer of particular merit who has, for whatever reason, fallen to some extent out of the public eye. Usually this means a writer who is either deceased, or who has not published for a significant period. The other members of the jury are Ann VanderMeer, Steven H Silver, and Grant Thiessen. The award is presented at Readercon, a long-running convention in the Boston area devoted to written SF and Fantasy. For 2023 we selected Josephine Saxton.

Saxton was born Josephine Mary Howard in 1935 in Halifax in Yorkshire, England. She began publishing in 1965, as Josephine Saxton, with "The Wall", in Science Fantasy. Over the next several years she published a number of stories, largely in F&SF, though some appeared in anthologies like England Swings SF, Stopwatch, Alchemy and Academe, Orbit, and Again, Dangerous Visions. Her first three novels, beginning with The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, came out from Doubleday in the US between 1969 and 1971. One more novel, Queen of the States, appeared in 1986. Two books about a character named Jane Saint showed up in 1986 and 1989, each comprising a short novel or novella and some stories (the latter not necessarily about Jane Saint.) The collections The Power of Time and Little Tours of Hell, were published in 1985 and 1986, the first collecting most of her early stories, the second a set of short horror pieces. Since 1989 her only book has been a nonfiction work on gardening. Saxton is still alive, now 88 years old.

This body of work, though fairly small, is quite remarkable, and thoroughly original. She does not typically present a coherent science fictional or fantasy "world" -- instead, we see utterly strange happenings that either represent in some sense the characters' internal state of mind or thematically symbolize what's going on. I think it's fair to say that for many readers this is a problem. For me, I find myself completely enchanted by Saxton's prose, and by her imagination. Her novels draw you into their worldview if you let them, they take you on an unexpected journey, and they can be truly powerful. I don't think she exactly fit anywhere generically -- she was fortunate to find in the SF scene of the mid-60s a receptive editorial audience. She seemed to fit within the English New Wave, but she never appeared in New Worlds -- most of her early work was published in the US. I think, really, she is sui generis.

I have reviewed three of her novels, Vector for Seven (my personal favorite), The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, and Queen of the States. Here are the reviews:

Vector for Seven

The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith/Queen of the States.

Ann VanderMeer and I represented the jury at Readercon this year. We gave the following announcement of our selection: 

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award jury have selected Josephine Saxton for the 2023 Award. Ms. Saxton's first story, "The Wall", appeared in Science Fantasy in 1965. She has since published dozens of short stories including "The Consciousness Machine", "The Power of Time", and "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon"; as well as the novels The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Vector for Seven, Group Feast, Queen of the States; and the Jane Saint stories, comprising two short novels and several related stories. Her fiction is as original as any writer we know, marrying a striking almost surrealistic imagination with a fiercely feminist yet wholly personal viewpoint. She is like no other writer, and a writer whose work is as fresh now, three decades since her last short story appeared, as it was when she emerged in the mid 1960s.

Ann then read the opening of a brand new story from Josephine Saxton, the first from her in some 30 years, that showed that even in her 80s she retains her ability.

I hope contemporary readers seek out Saxton's work -- it is challenging, yes, but extremely rewarding, exciting, and as I've said, wholly individual. Most of her work is available in ebook form from Gateway Orion.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Resurrected Review: Spotted Lily, by Anna Tambour

Resurrected Review: Spotted Lily, by Anna Tambour

In honor of her new 2023 story collection, Death Goes to the Dogs, I'm resurrecting a review I did back in 2005 of Anna Tambour's first novel, Spotted Lily. I'll get to Death Goes to the Dogs sometime, mind! (And I'm assured that despite the cover illustration, it is not really a horror collection.) Anna herself is truly one of the most individual voices in our field, and this was clear right from her start.

Anna Tambour's first novel is funny, moving, and true. At the open it seems set to be a satirical account of a somewhat aimless young woman's deal with the devil, and as such it is funny enough. But along the way -- or more probably, from the start, did we but know it -- it becomes an affecting look at an Australian woman's discovery of herself. Oh, and a love story too. With plenty of erotic imagery -- but with most of the actual eroticism suppressed.

Angela Pendergast is a 30ish Australian woman who has moved from her family's ranch in the bush to the big city. She wants to be a Writer, specifically a Bestselling Writer, but she finds it hard to actually get down to writing her Novel. Put simply, she wants to Have Written, not to write. She has a part-time job at a New Age bookstore, and she lives in a house with a few roommates.

Then the Devil shows up. He wants to be the new roomer -- but more than that, he offers her a deal. He'll write her Novel, a guaranteed bestseller. In exchange, of course, for the usual.

So far, so relatively normal. But both Angela and the Devil, whom she names Brett Hartshorn, aren't quite such simple characters. Soon Brett is immersing himself in human literature, trying to decide what makes a bestseller. (Before too long he lights on Barbara Cartland, and who can argue?) Meanwhile Angela is being remade as a glamorous Author, which amounts to accepting her curviness as loveliness, and to abandoning herself to the ministrations of a couple of fashion advisers. Which is a bad description of that portion of the book -- the "advisers" aren't conventionally portrayed at all, and Angela (now called Desirée Lily) is quite a different "Author".

But the book has further twists and turns. It seems what the Devil wants, and for that matter what Angela wants, isn't quite as clearcut as we might have thought. Never is the next plot development what we expect, as Angela learns more and more about things she has ignored, as she indeed becomes a bestselling author, in a very surprising and funny way, and as the Devil, indeed, is delivered his promised soul.

Inevitably one of the things Angela really needs is to return home, to come to an accommodation with the bush she left, with the parents she left. And, finally, she needs to come to one more accommodation -- another striking surprise!

Spotted Lily is quite an impressive debut. Perhaps most of all it is a very funny book, without being what you would call a comedy. It is also a believable and complete portrait of a woman. It is very surprising, and refreshingly so. I thought perhaps the need to always be original led to a bit of a strain for effect right at the close -- I admit I expected a slightly different, more conventional resolution, and I'm not quite sure the final twist really works -- but it's completely honest to the spirit of the book. Anna Tambour, on the strength of Spotted Lily and her earlier story collection, Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales &, is one of the most delightful, original, and varied new writers on hand.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Review: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

Review: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

by Rich Horton

This is Cassandra Khaw's first full-length novel (I think -- there have been several novella-length chapbooks.) I have been intrigued by their work for a while, particularly after reading the 2019 story "Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad", which I included in my Best of the Year volume, so I was anticipating this book. Khaw is a Malaysian writer and game designer, and most of their work has a distinct horror slant. That includes this novel -- even though it is pure SF.

This novel is primarily told from the POV of Maya, a profane woman working for (and obsessively in love with) Rita, who seems to be the leader of a group of space-based criminals which has fallen apart after the death of one of them, Johanna, some 40 years before. And now Rita is trying to get the gang back together, for (of course (sigh)) one last mission. The nature of the mission -- and, indeed, the nature of the gang, and of this future, are largely for the novel to reveal. Indeed, from the beginning, the reader is thrown into a world with little in the way of guideposts, little in the way of back story, and has to piece things together as things go on.

Rita and Maya, for the first half or more of the novel, keep trying to convince former members of the gang to rejoin them, mainly to help save Elise, one of their number who had physically died but managed to escape into the "Conversation", where the AIs who seem to dominate this multiple star system polity communicate. Some of their number agree to rejoin -- all reluctant, all for the same reasons -- distrust of Rita, especially over the loss of Johanna. Others turn out to be dead -- really dead. But over time a sort of quorum assembles -- and they head to the mysterious planet Dimmurborgir.

But I've skipped some stuff. For one thing, there is another major character, an AI named Pimento. Pimento is, I think, the most sympathetic character in the novel -- he is subservient to another AI, the Merchant Mind, but he seems to want to gain agency of his own. For another thing, there is Elise, who has her own POV chapters, as she tries to maintain her identity free from the searching AIs. And there are questions about the true natures of Rita and Maya and company -- it seems they are clones, who can be re-instantiated (mostly) after death, and reloaded, as it were, with their preserved consciousness. And clones are second -- or third -- class people in this future. 

All this is super promising, really. But, I fear, it never wholly coheres. To some extent, this is me complaining that I didn't understand this future well enough -- perhaps that's my fault (but I know I'm not alone!) To some extent, this is a Maya problem -- though there are several POV characters, Maya has by far the biggest share of the narrative, and she's kind of, well, boring -- just a constantly swearing fighter, with not much in the way of a third dimension. More Pimento, and more Elise, I think, would be good. In addition, the opening half of the book comes off rather padded -- continuing "shampoo, rinse, repeat" of tracking down another character, convincing her to rejoin the gang, getting rebuffed, guilting her via Elise to overcome her resistance ... even though each of these characters are supposed to be different from each other, this doesn't fully come off. One further weakness is the fuzziness of detail of the -- let's say, geography (or astrography) of this future. How does one get from one system to another? How many systems are there? How many planets? Cities? Moons? It wouldn't take much space to sketch these details in -- and it would really clarify a lot of, well, structure. For this reader, at least.

I will say that the novel's ending is pretty strong -- the final fate of the characters is pretty cool. But I wish it were a bit more earned. The novel needed to be either 30,000 words shorter, and simpler, or 20,000 words longer (or, better, 20,000 words longer with 40,000 new words and 20,000 cut) -- and in so doing, more fully develop the really cool ideas -- the role of AI in this future, and the position of clones, mainly; while tamping down the eventually somewhat repetitious violence, and repetitious voice.

I sound harsh, and I don't mean to be quite so down on the book. I don't think it works, but I did read it, and quickly. It lagged a bit at times, but never enough to make want to stop. The prose is inconsistent, but at its best is excellent -- original, sharp, energetic. And there are ideas behind it that I really liked -- I just don't think they were brought to life enough. In the end, I'll call this a promising first novel, with first novel problems, but which still marks its author as a writer to watch. 

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Resurrected Review: The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker

Time to resurrect another old review, this one from my SFF.net newsgroup back in 2003. Kage Baker began publishing SF (and Fantasy) in the late '90s, and made an immediate mark, first with her Company stories (about a time traveling group of people), but eventually with stories in numerous series. She won a Nebula in 2010 for Best Novella ("The Woman of Nell Gwynne's".) Alas, she died of cancer, aged only 57, that same year. The review below is unchanged from what I wrote in 2003.

The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker

Tor, New York, NY, August 2003, 350 pages, Hardcover, US$25.95, ISBN:0-765-30818-5

a review by Rich Horton

Kage Baker is mostly known for her Company series, comprising to date several novels and quite a few short stories, the latter mostly but not exclusively from Asimov's. But she has begun to publish a few non-Company stories. One of these appeared in Asimov's in 2001, a huge novella, almost 36,000 words, called "The Caravan From Troon". She has now expanded the novella into a novel, called The Anvil of the World.

The expansion has been done fairly simply by adding two more novellas, of roughly similar length, to the original one. (A quick check suggests that "The Caravan From Troon" is all but unchanged as the first section of The Anvil of the World.) The novellas are closely linked, featuring the same cast of characters, and following on each other sequentially.

In "The Caravan From Troon", a mysterious man named Smith, who had come to Troon to escape the wrath of the family of someone he had killed (his previous job was assassin), is assigned to lead a caravan from the agricultural city Troon to the seaside town of Salesh. The caravan must pass through the mountains controlled by the Demon called the Master of the Mountain, and also through the territory of the mostly pacifistic Yendri, or "greenies", forest dwelling folk who sometimes erupt in resentment at the technological ways of humans (or as they are called "Children of the Sun"). (It should be noted that Children of the Sun, Yendri, and demons are physiologically similar and each species is interfertile with the others, which turns out to be critical to the plot in a number of ways.) The caravan consists of a number of variously suspicious folks, including the sickly Lord Ermenwyr and his extremely lovely nurse; the highly competent cook Mrs. Smith; a courier named Parradan Smith; another family named Smith (yes, it's kind of a joke, though it later becomes somewhat significant); and a Yendri herbalist, as well as a teenaged girl named Burnbright whose job is "runner" -- to run ahead of the caravan.

This first story simply tells of the caravan's journey to Salesh. To be sure, the journey is not without incident -- the caravan is attacked on a couple of occasions, including once at an inn where Smith himself is nearly killed; most of the passengers prove not to be what they seem; Smith finds himself entrusted with an unexpected additional delivery. By the end we have a better idea of the social and political issues of this world, and we more or less know who all the players really are.

The second segment is a murder mystery of sorts. Smith and his fellow caravan workers, at the end of the first section, found it wise to leave the caravan business and open an inn, under the patronage of Lord Ermenwyr. Mrs. Smith is the cook, Burnbright runs messages for the inn, Smith himself is the innkeeper, and others, such as Keyman Smith, work as busboys, waiters, and the like. During Festival time in Salesh, the entire city gives itself over to a few days of sexual license. Unfortunately for Smith, a guest at the inn is murdered, and he is charged by the investigating constable with finding the murderer -- the constable having other plans involving a certain lovely. A further complication is provided by a wizard who has challenged Lord Ermenwyr to a magic duel. And finally, Burnbright falls in love with yet another guest.

Smith's investigations lead him to make some unexpected discoveries about the past life of certain of his associates. He also finds the murderer -- I thought a nicely set up surprise. And Burnbright's affair goes forward, but not without difficulty, and Lord Ermenwyr has his duel -- quite amusingly portrayed.

In the third section, a real estate company is proposing to build a development at a site sacred to the Yendri. This cause considerable interspecies tensions, and indeed it seems that a race war may be unavoidable. Amidst all this Lord Ermenwyr receives a Sending from his sister, who needs his help. Which turns out to involve a boat -- and Smith is the only person Lord Ermenwyr knows who can sail.

The resolution this time involves secrets about Smith's own past, which I thought were revealed fairly cleverly. It also involves dealing with the relationships between all the races, and considerable exploration of the history and myth underlying this fantasy world.

All in all, this is quite an enjoyable novel. It is fairly witty throughout, and cleverly imagined, if most of the setting consists of ringing changes on familiar fantasy environments. The moral is humanistic and affecting. The structure, as hinted, is a bit episodic -- it really is more three separate but linked stories than one unified novel. It's an entertainment, with just a hint of a serious core to it. Amiable, a bit rambling, not a major work but good fun.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Review: Late Stories, Punch and Powell, by Inez Holden

Review: Late Stories, Punch and Powell, by Inez Holden

by Rich Horton

Here's a curious book by a writer I knew nothing about until a couple of weeks ago. Inez Holden was born in 1903 to Wilfred Holden and Beatrice Paget, both from families that could be considered "landed gentry". That marriage was apparently not a very good one (Inez claimed her first memory was of her father shooting at her mother), and Inez' relationship with her mother was also not very good. (For one thing, her mother did not bother to record her birth in a timely fashion, so that the 1903 birth date is not certain -- she may have been born in 1904.) Apparently her mother spent extravagantly on herself, and nothing on Inez. Inez' first novel, Sweet Charlatan, was published in 1929, and her second, Born Old, Died Young, in 1932. She published a number of short stories and another novel in the 1930s. One of her books is a collection of some of those short stories, rewritten in "Basic English", an 800 word vocabulary that was briefly fashionable as a means of spreading English around the world as a sort of common language. 

Holden is best known nowadays for her writing about the home front of World War II. She spent some time working in, or reporting on, wartime factories. A short novel, Night Shift, and a piece of reportage, It Was Different at the Time has been recently reprinted by Handheld Press (a wonderful enterprise!) as Blitz Writing. Handheld have also reprinted There's No Story There, a sort of novel based on three shorter pieces, which appear to be lightly fictionalized accounts of life and work in a wartime factory. Beside these books, and her '30s novels, she published two in the '50s: The Owner, and The Adults. Besides those novels she published a number of short stories in Punch, during the period that Anthony Powell was working there -- these are perhaps more sketches than stories, and they make up the bulk of this book.

Anthony Powell and Inez Holden met in the '20s, when both were, to some degree or another, part of the "Bright Young Things" set. Holden's first two novels went to Duckworth, where Powell worked, and he recommended against publishing them, but he was overruled by Thomas Balston -- and it is suggested that Holden's "personal charms" paid a role. (She was rather a beauty.) But Powell and she remained friends to some degree, and they lunched with Evelyn Waugh at one point. Holden was a friends with Waugh, and H. G. Wells, and Sidney Smith, and George Orwell (in his case, briefly his lover.) Powell used her as the model for Roberta Payne, a significant character in his last pre-War novel, What's Become of Waring (a novel I like a good deal.) While Powell never seems to have much liked her novels, he tended to praise her style, and I think that contributed to his buying her late stories for Punch.

The book at hand is published by the Anthony Powell Society, and edited by Jeff Manley and Robin Bynoe. As such it leans into Holden's connection to Powell. It includes the Punch stories, 17 in all, that appeared between 1953 and 1958. They are short -- between a few hundred and a couple of thousand words. They are dialogue heavy, arch, somewhat absurd, and quite funny. They don't resolve to much in the way of plot, and, really, that's not the point. The characters include Princesses, kleptomaniacs, quacks, failures, Americans ... all kinds of weirdos! They are never less than readable, and mostly immensely amusing, if in the end rather slight. I liked "Love, Breath, and Circumstances", about an American couple thoroughly misinterpreting a book of instructive love letters; and "The Young Table", in which an American schoolgirl in England has to sit at the table for younger girls, a bit of a problem given her interest in older men; and "Myself as Leader", in which the narrator decides to lead a group of hooligans in their criminal enterprises, while staying quite out of things herself; and "The Age of Innocence", about a rackety bunch of old people mistreating each other. But, really, all the stories are worth reading, partly because they never overstay their welcome -- and Holden's narrative voice is a delight.

In addition to the stories, each of the editors, Jeff Manley and Robin Bynoe, contributes an essay, about Holden's life and work, contextualized by her relationship to Powell. There are also reprints of memorial pieces by Powell, and by Holden's cousin Celia Goodman, on the occasion of Holden's death. A few letters between Powell and Goodman, concerning an abortive attempt at collecting some of Holden's short fiction (presumably including these stories from Punch) are reproduced.

This is really quite a worthwhile project, bringing to attention an intriguing selection of work by a minor but unjustly forgotten 20th Century writer. These are just the sort of stories that are wholly of their time, and wholly of their author's voice, and as such perhaps easy to overlook, but in their small way significant. I for one will be looking for her novels -- particularly the science fictional Born Old, Died Young, and the quite odd-looking The Owners.