Thursday, April 18, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage is the fourth of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barchester, following The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and Doctor Thorne (1858), and succeeded by The Small House at Allington (1863) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). Framley Parsonage was first serialized in Cornhill Magazine in 1860/1861, and published in book form in the latter year. (Serialization of novels was common in that period, and three of the Chronicles were first published in magazines, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.) The earlier Barchester novels were quite successful, but apparently Framley Parsonage was even more so.

I read The Warden when I was a teenager, and I read Barchester Towers last year (review here). I intended to continue reading the Chronicles in order, but I made a mistake, and got a (free!) audiobook version of Framley Parsonage and started listening to it before I realized I should have read Doctor Thorne first. (No big deal, I think -- I can certainly figure out much of what happened in Doctor Thorne from what I learned in Framley Parsonage, but Trollope's pleasures like very much elsewhere from the simple progressions of the plots.) The narrator of my version was Timothy West -- I note that Audible also features versions by Simon Vance, by David Shaw-Parker, and by Flo Gibson. I can only say that I think West did an excellent job.

The novel proceeds in several closely related threads. The primary thread concerns Mark Robarts, the Vicar of Framley Parsonage. Mark is a pleasant enough man in his late 20s, who became friends as a child with a boy of the same age, then the son of Baron Lufton, though Mark's friend, Ludovic, has succeeded to the title at the time of this novel. Lord Lufton's mother, Lady Lufton, is a benevolent woman, and she helped Mark Robarts get an excellent education, and sponsored him for the living at Framley Parsonage (a very good living) and even introduced him to his wife, Fanny. Mark is thus in a good situation, with a wife he loves, and children he loves -- but he does feel that he is too much in Lady Lufton's debt, and thus under her control. And so, as the novel opens,  he accepts an invitation from a new friend of his, whom he met through Lord Lufton -- Nathaniel Sowerby, who owns a house near the seat of the Duke of Omnium. The point here is that the Duke of Omnium is a Whig, and Lady Lufton is a Tory, and so Lady Lufton will not be happy. In addition, the Duke is reputed to be a very immoral man, and, in fact, Mark already knows that Mr. Sowerby is an unstrustworthy man, at least in financial matters, for he has already led Lord Lufton into debt, by rather shady means. Very soon, then, Mark finds himself agreeing to sign a bill for Mr. Sowerby, to help tide the man over some financial difficulties -- though the reader (and, soon enough, Mark) realizes right away that Mr. Sowerby will not be able to raise the money to pay off the bill, and the burden will fall on Mark. 

So, this thread is entwined throughout the novel: we realize quickly that Mr. Sowerby is on the road to complete financial ruin, and that he will bring Mark with him. Mr. Sowerby is the MP from the Duke's part of Barchestershire (chosen by the Duke) and part of the book follows some political upheaval -- the Whigs gain control of Parliament. This allows Sowerby to angle for a plum appointment for Mark -- a Prebendary stall in Barchester -- which again, will only entangle Mark more damningly with Mr. Sowerby. Trollope was keenly interested in politics and once stood for office himself. This is the most political of the Barchester novels I've read, with plot lines involving multiple governments being formed (Trollope has great fun calling the Whigs "Gods" and the Tories "Giants" in an extended metaphor), and concerning the fortunes of not just Mark Robarts, but his brother John (who holds a minor position in a government department), and of Archdeacon Grantly (who stands to gain a Bishopric if a bill creating two new sees is passed), and Mr. Harold Smith, a pompous Whig (and brother-in-law to Mr. Sowerby) who wants a Cabinet position.*

The key romantic thread involves Mark's sister Lucy, who comes to live with Mark and Fanny, and thus meets Lord Lufton. The two fall in love, but Lady Lufton and the Archdeacon's wife Mrs. Grantly have long intended that Lord Lufton marry Griselda Grantly. Lucy is aware of that, and tries to hide her attraction to Lord Lufton, but any reader can see the way the wind blows. This is all resolved very nicely, even powerfully -- and Griselda Grantly, it must be said, is a terribly comical character in her almost imprenetrable self-conceit and lack of passion or intelligence. 

There is another significant thread, involving Mr. Crawley, a desperately poor clergyman with a meager living in a remote part of the county. Mr. Crawley was very briefly introduced in Barchester Towers as the friend of Mr. Arabin, who in that book became the new Dean of Barchester. Mr. Crowley and his wife have four children, and they can barely support them, but Mr. Crowley's pride is so extreme that he refuses all help, though Mr. Arabin as well as Fanny and Mark Robarts try to help, and sometimes manage to sneak treats to Mrs. Crowley. Mr. Crowley is a deeply flawed man, but a very honest and sincere one, and he serves as a moral corrective to Mark when he begins to stray. But the Crowleys face a severe crisis when Mrs. Crowley contracts a severe fever (probably typhoid fever), and Fanny and Lucy Robarts (especially Lucy) come to the rescue. (I understand the Mr. Crowley becomes the key character of The Last Chronicle of Barset.)

I have failed to mention many of the characters, many already familiar to readers of the previous books: the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie, the delightful heiress Miss Dunstable, Dr. Thorne of the book named for him; and well as such new characters as Mrs. Harriet Smith (Mr. Sowerby's sister), and the journalist Mr. Supplehouse.

I won't detail the plot any further -- likely I've already said too much. I just wish to say how thoroughly enjoyable the novel is -- indeed, I'm beginning to understand, how thoroughly enjoyable Trollope is. The novel -- as I understand it, most of his novels -- is told from an omniscient author point of view -- that is, the voice of the author is prominent, and he knows everything, and lets us in on a lot of what he knows. This sort of thing is unfashionable these days, and it is fraught with danger, but in skilled hands -- and Trollope's hands are very skilled indeed -- it is delightful. The author comments extensively on the events of the story, on the motivations and feelings of the characters, and on the moral and political lessons to be derived; and he does so with a beautifully ironic tone. The novel itself is at once gently satirical, and profoundly affectionate to all the characters, even a villain like Mr. Sowerby. It is very funny at times, and really moving at times. It is popular fiction -- of the highest order, but still popular -- and there is a sense that the author arranges that things turn out more or less for the best for the characters we like. But we do also learn, and think, about the society of which Trollope writes, and its social, economic, and political organization.

In summary -- this is a lovely book, and I recommend it highly. Likely it is best read after reading the earlier Barchester books -- but that should be no burden, they are quite enjoyable.

*(I understand that the Palliser novels -- originally called the Parliamentary novels -- are much more concerned with political maneuverings. They are also closely linked to the Barchester novels -- indeed, Palliser is the family name of the Duke of Omnium.)

Monday, April 15, 2024

Pseudonyms Quiz Answers

 Pseudonyms Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to the quiz:

1.  Two 19th century women writers, named Mary Anne Evans and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, each chose a pseudonym with the same traditionally male first name. Give both full pseudonyms in either order (first and last name.)

George Eliot, George Sand (Sand, by the way, spelled the first name "George", no s)

2.  Lincoln Perry was the first Black actor to have a featured credit in a Hollywood film, and to make over $1,000,000 in movies. His characters, such as Joe in Show Boat, and Gummy, in Hearts of Dixie, came to be known as "The Laziest Men in the World": arguably a harmful stereotype, though some Black scholars argue that he was more of a trickster figure, and Perry was awarded an NCAAP Image Award. What was the stage name Perry might be said to have walked up and taken?

Stepin Fetchit

3.  An important political activist and religious figure was born with the surname Little, and had the surname el-Shabazz at his death, but is more generally known by which name (first and last name please)?

Malcolm X

4.  Richard Patrick Russ was a successful writer of boy's stories, appropriate in that his first book, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard, appeared when he was 15. But he changed his name in 1945, keeping his middle name as his new first name, and gained great success decades later as the author of a revered set of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, a couple of which were adapted into the film Master and CommanderGive the new surname under which his later books appeared, and the surnames of the main characters in this series. 

O'Brien, (Jack) Aubrey/(Stephen) Maturin

5.  Name the writer who adopted the pseudonym V. Sirin, a reference to a Russian mythological bird, for their early works published in Germany, such as their first novel, Mary. This writer later published under their own name, and was wont to use versions of their name, such as Vivian Darkbloom, as characters in their novels.

Vladimir Nabokov

6.  One of the most famous pseudonyms in contemporary literature is that of the author of the Neopolitan novels, a four book series beginning with My Brilliant Friend. This author still refuses to reveal her true identity, leading to many speculations, including one that she was actually a man, a claim the author strongly denies. Under what name are the Neopolitan novels published?

Elena Ferrante

7.  Sometimes authors choose a pseudonym when they write in a different genre from their usual. Which renowned mystery writer published such novels as Absent in the Spring and The Rose and the Yew Tree, which were not mysteries but general fiction (with occasional romantic themes), as by "Mary Westmacott"?

Agatha Christie

8.  Many actors use names that differ from their birth names (think Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Mortenson) but this seems less common for directors. However, one John Martin Feeney became one of the most celebrated directors of all time, winner of four Oscars for Best Director. If his pseudonym was intended to conceal his Irish ancestry, surely he risked exposing that with one of his better known films, The Quiet ManWhat was the name John Martin Feeney used professionally?

John Ford

9.  A woman possibly named Fujiwara no Kaoriko wrote a long novel generally regarded as one of the first novels in history. By what name is this author usually known, a descriptive name, bestowed on her during her service as a lady-in-waiting?

(Lady) Murasaki/Murasaki Shikibu

10.  The great French singer born Edith Gassion presumably did not regret adopting this pseudonym, which is usually translated as what bird in English, based on French slang? (Give either the pseudonym or the English word for the bird.)

Edith Piaf (the Little Sparrow)

11.  A common reason for using a pseudonym is to conceal your side hustle from your main employer. P. M. A. Linebarger was a professor in Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, a reserve Army officer, and an expert in psychological warfare (but never a shoemaker nor a metalworker!). He also wrote some of the most individual science fiction of the 20th Century, such as "Scanners Live in Vain", under which pseudonym (first and last name please)?

Cordwainer Smith

12.  The woman born Paulette Williams rejected her patriarchal name (Paulette) and slave name (Williams) and took a new name, based on Xhosa and Zulu words meaning "She who comes with her own things" and "She who walks like a lion". Give this new name, under which she wrote novels such as Liliane, poetry, and plays like the 1975 Emmy- and Grammy-nominated "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

Ntozake Shange

13. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, was born with a different name. Give his last name at birth -- a name which may have been the inspiration for the title character's name in a certain story by Sturgeon's friend Robert Heinlein -- and Heinlein's character's name became an English word for remote handling devices.

Waldo

14. Portugal's Fernando Pessoa may have used more pseudonyms than any other writer, though he regarded them as individuals of their own, with different biographies and views, and he called them "heteronyms". One of the most famous of his heteronyms even inspired a novel by another of Portugal's greatest writers, called The Year of the Death of [redacted]Give either the redacted name of this particular heteronym, or the Nobel Prize winner who wrote the novel.

Ricardo Reis/Jose Saramago

15. Science fiction and crime writer Stephen Robinett published his first several stories and the serial version of his first novel (Stargate) as by "Tak Hallus", a name derived from a Persian, Urdu, and Hindi word (itself imported from Arabic) which has what appropriate meaning?

Pseudonym/Pen Name

16. A Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master published some stories and a few of her novels as by "Andrew North", presumably because her audience for these books was felt to be boys. Ironically, her first name was also traditionally male -- because she had adopted it at first as a pseudonym for her early novels, but then legally changed her name? What was her full name, either at birth, or after her name change?

Alice Mary Norton/Andre Norton

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pseudonyms Quiz

Pseudonyms Quiz

As I've mentioned before, I'm in an online trivia league, and I have occasionally written quizzes for that league. My previous quizzes were very Science Fiction-centric, but this year I did one that focuses more generally on pseudonyms -- including, in some cases, names that people chose for themselves and legally adopted. The quiz as presented included the first 12 questions here, but I've added four more questions, rejected during the prep stage in part because they might have played too hard (for a general audience) and in part because I wanted to avoid having too many SF questions.

Most of these questions are about writers, but there are some from the film world, one singer, and one more politically-oriented individual. I'll have answers in a couple of days. If you wish, leave your guess in the comments. [The answers have now been posted here.]

1.  Two 19th century women writers, named Mary Anne Evans and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, each chose a pseudonym with the same traditionally male first name. Give both full pseudonyms in either order (first and last name.)

2.  Lincoln Perry was the first Black actor to have a featured credit in a Hollywood film, and to make over $1,000,000 in movies. His characters, such as Joe in Show Boat, and Gummy, in Hearts of Dixie, came to be known as "The Laziest Men in the World": arguably a harmful stereotype, though some Black scholars argue that he was more of a trickster figure, and Perry was awarded an NCAAP Image Award. What was the stage name Perry might be said to have walked up and taken?

3.  An important political activist and religious figure was born with the surname Little, and had the surname el-Shabazz at his death, but is more generally known by which name (first and last name please)?

4.  Richard Patrick Russ was a successful writer of boy's stories, appropriate in that his first book, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard, appeared when he was 15. But he changed his name in 1945, keeping his middle name as his new first name, and gained great success decades later as the author of a revered set of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, a couple of which were adapted into the film Master and Commander. Give the new surname under which his later books appeared, and the surnames of the main characters in this series. 

5.  Name the writer who adopted the pseudonym V. Sirin, a reference to a Russian mythological bird, for their early works published in Germany, such as their first novel, Mary. This writer later published under their own name, and was wont to use versions of their name, such as Vivian Darkbloom, as characters in their novels.

6.  One of the most famous pseudonyms in contemporary literature is that of the author of the Neopolitan novels, a four book series beginning with My Brilliant Friend. This author still refuses to reveal her true identity, leading to many speculations, including one that she was actually a man, a claim the author strongly denies. Under what name are the Neopolitan novels published?

7.  Sometimes authors choose a pseudonym when they write in a different genre from their usual. Which renowned mystery writer published such novels as Absent in the Spring and The Rose and the Yew Tree, which were not mysteries but general fiction (with occasional romantic themes), as by "Mary Westmacott"?

8.  Many actors use names that differ from their birth names (think Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Mortenson) but this seems less common for directors. However, one John Martin Feeney became one of the most celebrated directors of all time, winner of four Oscars for Best Director. If his pseudonym was intended to conceal his Irish ancestry, surely he risked exposing that with one of his better known films, The Quiet Man. What was the name John Martin Feeney used professionally?

9.  A woman possibly named Fujiwara no Kaoriko wrote a long novel generally regarded as one of the first novels in history. By what name is this author usually known, a descriptive name, bestowed on her during her service as a lady-in-waiting?

10.  The great French singer born Edith Gassion presumably did not regret adopting this pseudonym, which is usually translated as what bird in English, based on French slang? (Give either the pseudonym or the English word for the bird.)

11.  A common reason for using a pseudonym is to conceal your side hustle from your main employer. P. M. A. Linebarger was a professor in Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, a reserve Army officer, and an expert in psychological warfare (but never a shoemaker nor a metalworker!). He also wrote some of the most individual science fiction of the 20th Century, such as "Scanners Live in Vain", under which pseudonym (first and last name please)?

12.  The woman born Paulette Williams rejected her patriarchal name (Paulette) and slave name (Williams) and took a new name, based on Xhosa and Zulu words meaning "She who comes with her own things" and "She who walks like a lion". Give this new name, under which she wrote novels such as Liliane, poetry, and plays like the 1975 Emmy- and Grammy-nominated "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

13. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, was born with a different name. Give his last name at birth -- a name which may have been the inspiration for the title character's name in a certain story by Sturgeon's friend Robert Heinlein -- and Heinlein's character's name became an English word for remote handling devices..

14. Portugal's Fernando Pessoa may have used more pseudonyms than any other writer, though he regarded them as individuals of their own, with different biographies and views, and he called them "heteronyms". One of the most famous of his heteronyms even inspired a novel by another of Portugal's greatest writers, called The Year of the Death of [redacted]. Give either the redacted name of this particular heteronym, or the Nobel Prize winner who wrote the novel.

15. Science fiction and crime writer Stephen Robinett published his first several stories and the serial version of his first novel (Stargate) as by "Tak Hallus", a name derived from a Persian, Urdu, and Hindi word (itself imported from Arabic) which has what appropriate meaning?

16. A Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master published some stories and a few of her novels as by "Andrew North", presumably because her audience for these books was felt to be boys. Ironically, her first name was also traditionally male -- because she had adopted it at first as a pseudonym for her early novels, but then legally changed her name? What was her full name, either at birth, or after her name change?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Review: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

Review: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

by Rich Horton


David Garnett (1892-1981) was part of the Bloomsbury Group. His mother was the Russian translator Constance Garnett, and he married Virginia Woolf's niece, rather scandalously (she was over a quarter-century younger than him, and he had met her as an infant, and she was the daughter of his one time lover Duncan Grant.) He published his first novel during the Great War under a pseudonym. Lady Into Fox (1924) was his second novel, or, really, a novella -- it's not much over 20,000 words long. He wrote quite a few more books, of which the best known is probably Aspects of Love (1955), the source material for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of that title.

The book was illustrated in woodcuts by R. A. Garnett -- David Garnett's first wife. My edition is the 2004 reprint from McSweeney's, which reproduces R. A. Garnett's illustrations. 

It's the story of a young woman, Silvia Tebrick (maiden name Fox) who one day suddenly turns into a fox. Her husband Richard is despondent -- they were a truly loving couple -- and takes his vixen home with him, and tries to make a life with her in her transformed state. He dismisses his servants, and tries to feed her at the dinner table, and have her sleep in the bed with him, and she even plays piquet.

But over time her urge to be outside dominates, and she loses interest in piquet, and wants to eat food she's caught herself. Eventually Richard must set her free, which only leads to further difficulties for him. She has a litter, and he finds himself desperately worrying about the local fox hunts. There is still a relationship -- and Richard dotes on some of the foxes in her litter, though he's jealous of the father. But the arc of the story is clear, and the tragic ending inevitable.

It's a rather neat story, at once tragic, but a bit arch. Is it an allegory of a woman's desire to have her own life? That's certainly one way to read it. But perhaps it's just a "beast story", or something unexplainable. There is never any reason to doubt the true affection of Richard and his wife, no question of cruelty. But her independent life as a vixen seems something she values as well. A fine novella, and best at this lenght -- any longer and it would have overstayed its welcome.

(Vercors' 1960 novel Sylva, the first book in translation to be nominated for a Hugo, was apparently in part a response to Lady Into Fox, as it's sort of the reverse story -- Sylva is a woman raised by foxes, or perhaps a fox that has become a woman. (I haven't actually read the book.))

Monday, April 8, 2024

Old Bestseller: The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy

Old Bestseller: The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy

by Rich Horton

Margaret Kennedy (1896-1967) was a British novelist and playwright, with at least 16 novels and a number of plays to her credit, as well as criticism and memoirs. She seems to have been quite successful in her lifetime, signaled in part by several movie adaptations, but, like many writers, her reputation went into eclipse for a time, but she has been somewhat rescued in recent years. Her family was, as a whole, quite literary -- Joyce Cary was her cousin, and one of her daughters and one of her granddaughters are also novelists.

The Constant Nymph, her second novel, from 1924, is definitely her best remembered book. She turned it into a play in 1926 (with Basil Dean) -- this was very popular, with the lead originated by Noel Coward, who was replaced by John Gielgud. There were four screen adaptations, in 1928, 1933, 1938, and 1943. The latter version, starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith, and Brenda Marshall, was quite successful, with Fontaine getting an Oscar nomination. (Having said that, a reading of the plot according to Wikipedia suggests to me that some of the most affecting parts of the novel were excised -- admittedly, in part likely because they'd have been pretty controversial.)

The story opens with a brief introduction to the expatriate British composer Albert Sanger, who left his home early for life on the continent, producing mostly operas that were only appreciated by a rare few, living in various places, with various wives and mistresses, and seven acknowledged children plus some illegitimate ones. We meet one of his protégés, another Englishman, Lewis Dodd, coming to visit him at his ramshackle place in the Austrian Tyrol. This section is called "Sanger's Circus", and Dodd, along with a Russian choreographer named Trigorin, arrive at the house, in which Sanger's seven children -- two by his first wife, four by his second wife, an Englishwoman named Evelyn Churchill, and one by his current mistress live, along with Sanger and the mistress, Linda. Lewis Dodd is another fabulous composer, also mostly unappreciated. The immediate crises are two -- Sanger's 16 year old daughter Toni has disappeared, and Sanger's health is precarious. Toni soon emerges -- she has run off to München, and has been seduced by the Jewish impresario Jacob Birnbaum. It's quickly clear that the even younger Tessa (14) is in love with Dodd, who has just enough self control not to sleep with her. And then Sanger dies.

Toni's situation is normalized, to some extent, when she marries Jacob. The two oldest Sanger children are talented musicians, and old enough to go off on their own. But what to do with Evelyn Churchill's remaining children, Tessa, Lina, and Sebastian? Evelyn's brothers, Robert and Charles, realize they must take custody, and soon Robert and Charles' daughter Florence come to the Sanger home to manage the estate, and to pack the children off to school in England. But Florence -- already an admirer of Lewis Dodd's music -- falls desperately in love with him, though it's really pretty clear they are not well suited. Lewis is entranced as well, due to Florence's beauty and sophistication, and they quickly marry. 

Then to the closing sequence, which involves the inevitable collapse of the Dodds' marriage, and the terrible difficulty the Sanger-Churchill children have adapting to English school ways. Florence is overcontrolling, and fiendishly jealous of Tessa. Tessa is still in love with Lewis -- and Lewis with her, though it's not clear how much of his response is to be trusted (and it's certainly a bit creepy.) Lewis (of course) is a compositional genius (and also a great conductor) -- and Florence sees him as a career to manage, while Tessa is more of a muse ... The novel careens from what at the beginning is an almost comic -- and quite believable -- portrayal of a chaotic if somewhat loving household to a full on -- and quite believable -- tragedy.

It's not a perfect novel. The brilliance of both Sanger and Dodd as composers seems at times a plot device. The portrayal of Jacob Birnbaum is very antisemitic, though one could argue that it is simply portraying the standard antisemitism of the era. The ultimate plot resolution turns in part on what seems a sort of convenient health problem. But for all that -- it really works. It's deeply affecting, and much of the family dynamics, for all their chaos, or perhaps because of the chaos, ring true. Florence perhaps is in the end too much of a villain -- but also we kind of believe that, and she's a villain but for -- well, not good reasons but understandable ones. It's -- it's a novel eminently worth reading, and quite powerful in its way. And, you know, the ending the reader kind of roots for (but doesn't get) is in many ways just so wrong -- but ... kind of right? I've seen the book compared to Lolita, but it's not really like that at all -- Tessa is not at all like Dolores Haze, nor so horribly abused, and Lewis Dodd, though not really an admirable man, is no Humbert Humbert. And Kennedy gets into Tessa's head in a way Nabokov never did with Dolores.

By the way, I had not known that Kennedy wrote a sequel, The Fool of the Family, concerning two of the Sanger boys, and (of course) their horrifying romantic convolutions. (The Constant Nymph is essentially all about the girls.) It seems to have been a success, and was adapted by Kennedy into a play, Escape Me Never, which in turn was twice filmed, in the UK in 1935, and again in the US in 1947. (The British film seems well-regarded, but the US film was apparently quite poor, despite starring Errol Flynn and Ida Lupino.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

by Rich Horton

A few years ago Alter S. Reiss published a novella for Tor.com called Sunset Mantle, set in a fictional but non-fantastic world. I liked it a great deal, and so I was happy to notice that he has published another story, a novella or short novel, in the same world (though with different characters.) This is Stone, from 2023. As far as I can tell it's ebook only.

The main character is Rael, a young woman in Taraf the City, an independent city-state in what seems a roughly Middle Eastern setting and culture, analogous to our world two or three millennia ago. She is a strong woman, learning to be a stone worker, like her father. The city is building a strong new gate, in the face of threats from a man who has set himself up as a King and conquered several other city-states. Rael's father is a greatly respected stonemason, "of the line of Peor". She has two brothers and a sister. The plot is set in motion when her younger and more mischievous brother Tei is murdered by one of the Red Scarves -- a group of bandits living in the desert wastes, that had recently been declared anathema by Taraf the City's somewhat fanatical new scholar-priest after they had stolen some gold from a caravan.

Rael blames herself for Tei's death, for she had not stopped him from confronting the Red Scarves. Her mother, meanwhile, is bitter that no revenge is being taken. And the loss of Tei puts more pressure on their family to supply urgently needed stoneworkers. Rael's brother is more interesting in being a soldier, and her sister is not well-suited to the work, so they invite a couple of cousins from another city. And the two young men, as Rael quickly realizes, are not actually her cousins -- but her mother insists they maintain the fiction, because their labor is much needed. 

Rael, though disturbed by the lie, soon comes to like the two men, who are good workers, and who even teach Rael some things she didn't know. Indeed she starts to have feelings for one of the men, Arith, which are clearly reciprocated. And the work on the gate continues, until another accident strikes, injuring a friend of Rael's and also one of her false cousins. With his fellow hurt, Arith asks Rael's assistance on something -- taking a mysterious cask in to the desert. Rael knows this must be something questionable, but she trusts Arith.

And so, the resolution marches forward, a beautifully engineered moral tragedy, as the various missteps -- even those with understandable motivations -- come back to haunt most of the characters, and especially Rael and her family. This is complicated by the expected incursion of the ambitious King, and by a religious showdown of sorts, with the laws and rules of their society, and their consciences, propelling the characters to a crushing end, with heroic acts, treachery, surprises, and deep honesty all swirling together. It's a profoundly moving story, and I recommend it highly.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

by Rich Horton

Vernor Vinge died the other day at the age of 79. I have written an obituary elsewhere (https://www.blackgate.com/2024/03/23/vernor-vinge-october-2-1944-march-20-2024/), so I won't recapitulate that here. I thought, instead, that I would reread one of his novels and review it.

I chose, perhaps perversely, his second novel, from 1976, The Witling, which is generally regarded as his worst novel. I agree with that assessment, but I haven't reread this book since shortly after it was published, so I didn't really remember it. It has been generally available -- first editions from DAW in the US and Dobson in the UK, an illustrated trade paperback in 1983 from Bluejay, and more reprints from Hamlyn, Baen, Pan, and Tor, the most recent in 2006 (and still in print.) This is unusual for a minor paperback original, but it reflects Vinge's status.

The Witling is set on the planet Giri, which is in a system with two habitable planets. Humans have colonized the other planet, and now they have set an expedition to Giri, having realized it has an intelligent race. Their vanguard is an elderly archaeologist, Ajão Bjault, and young space pilot, Yonnine Leg-Wot. As they wait for more of their fellows to land, they encounter the aliens -- and somehow the shuttle with the other Novamericans crashes, and Ajão and Yonnine are captured. 

On a parallel path we follow the aliens, especially the Crown Prince of the nation the humans have landed in, Pelio. Pelio, we quickly learn, is a "witling" -- he is, in the terms of the Girians, handicapped, because he cannot teleport. (This is, of course, how the Girians, with a fairly low level of tech, were able to down the shuttle.) The Prince is unhappy, because his knows his people disrespect him for his handicap. He learns of the capture of Ajão and Yonnine and decides to take the chance of bringing them under his protection. And when he sees Yonnine, his falls immediately for her.

Why? Well, apparently, Yonnine is a rather stocky woman, by Novamerican standards. And so she is considered unattractive. But the Girians are much heavier-set, and by their standards, she is beautifully slim. Uggh. This is stupid on so many levels (women of all builds are attractive, for one, and for two, why would Giri's people have that particular standard of beauty, and for three, it's really tiresome to have adult people falling for other people instantly based purely on physical attraction. Especially when the other people are aliens -- and surely not interfertile.) 

Anyway, Ajão and Yonnine realize they need to recover their maser to call for rescue, and the Prince has the recovered equipment hidden away. Eventually he agrees to let them look at the equipment -- only to find it's been stolen. And throughout this time we have been learning about the implications of a society of teleports. One is -- no doors. Why add a door when you can just teleport inside? To be sure, you have to have been anywhere you want to teleport ("reng"), or at least close enough to "seng" the empty spaces? The exceptions are the super powerful Guildsmen, who are ideally found when young, taken to be raised by the Guild, and who then offer their services -- they can, for example, seng and reng all the way to the moons. Naturally the royal family is very careful about revealing the location of their secret hiding places, so either a Guildsman or a royal must have stolen the equipment.

Anyway -- the plot gets in motion. Ajão and Yoninne must travel to the island where the rest of their people have landed. And here comes in another consequence of teleportation one can only travel roughly along lines of longitude, so as to maintain a low relative velocity between your points of departure and arrival. And travel to an island is extra hard, because boats are vulnerable to sea creatures who can also attack via telekinesis. But perhaps the humans have some technology that may help?

There's some more going on: palace intrigue (leading to absurd artificial deadlines), strife between the various polities on Giri, traitors, etc. And all this resolves in a dramatic ending, with an heroic sacrifice. And a really rather dumb -- and annoying! -- final line.

As a novel of action, it's OK. As a novel of science fiction, it has all kinds of flaws -- not very interesting social organizations, some silly science (especially the odd similarity of the Girians and the humans). As a novel of character, it's kind of negligible. As an extrapolation of how a society of teleports might be organized, and how teleportation might really work? It's pretty interesting, and I'm sure that's what excited Vinge about this project. So when he shows why you need pools at your destinations, or how a single palace can be spread across an entire meridian, or how to use air as a weapon -- that stuff is pretty cool. And, hey, I read it all quickly and with enjoyment (if punctuated by frustration.) Vinge got better -- lots better! As a worst novel in a career, The Witling is above average.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Old Bestseller: The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim

Old Bestseller: The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim

by Rich Horton

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) came to prominence with her first novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898), a lightly satirical novel about an Englishwoman trying to adjust to life in German high society after her marriage, and also trying to grow a garden. That novel was rather autobiographical -- though Von Arnim was born in Australia, maiden name Mary Annette Beauchamp, she was raised in England and Switzerland from the age of three. She married the German Graf (or Count) von Arnim in 1891, and had five children with him, though the marriage was largely unhappy. Later she married another Count -- Frank Russell, the elder brother of Bertrand, so she was twice a Countess. She split her time as an adult between England, Switzerland, and Germany, and as World War II impended she moved to the US, where she died.

She took her mother's first name for her pseudonym, and eventually was widely known by that name. She had numerous literary connections -- Katherine Mansfield was her first cousin once removed, and they became close. E. M. Forster and Hugh Walpole tutored her children. She had a three year affair with H. G. Wells. She also had a long affair with Alexander Stuart-Frere, a major figure in publishing circles. (Both Mansfield and Forster wrote pieces about von Arnim -- a  short story (names changed) by Mansfield, and a memoir of his time as tutor by Forster.) 

While as I suggested above, her first novel was a great success and made her name, she is at this time much more widely known for The Enchanted April (1922), primarily because of the 1991 film. In fact, that novel was filmed at least twice, and other novels among her two dozen or so were also filmed, perhaps most notably her last, Mr. Skeffington, which (like Enchanted April) was nominated for Oscars. The only one of her novels I'd previously read was The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight (1905), so I figured I'd read The Enchanted April. I read it via audiobook, from Librivox, narrated quite nicely by Diana Kiesners.

The book begins with Lotty Wilkins, a 30 year old woman living in Hampstead, reading an ad in the newspaper offering a castle in Italy, by the sea, for one month's lease. She daydreams about taking a vacation there, perhaps using her "nest egg" of £90, but realizes she can't afford it. Then she sees Rose Arbuthnot, a woman she knows from church (though they aren't directly acquainted) looking at the paper, and they begin to talk and rather wildly, decide that they will inquire about the castle. It's clear they are both unhappy -- childless middle class woman in their early 30s in unhappy marriages. Mellersh Wilkins is a solicitor, and seems to barely tolerate Lotty, and to keep a tight rein on finances, while Frederick Arbuthnot, a successful writer of scandalous books about the mistresses of various Kings, is rarely at home. (It's never said in so many words, but it seems clear he is sleeping with other women.) To save money, Lotty and Rose find two additional women to accompany them: an elderly woman, Mrs. Fisher; and a young and very (put as many verys as you want according to the way von Arnim describes her) beautiful noblewoman, Lady Caroline Dester.

Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher are both extremely selfish and rather stuck up, in different ways. We quickly have some sympathy for Lady Caroline, who was spoilt by her indulgent family, and who also has been badgered throughout her life by men who want to "grab" her, as she puts it. Mrs. Fisher is a harder case, though it's apparent that her husband too was quite awful. These first chapters, introducing the four women, are in von Arnim's best mode, one of gentle satire, and they are at times laugh out loud funny. 

The four women arrive in Italy, and start enjoying the scenery and weather and all, they begin to -- blossom, I suppose, though there is some stress with the way Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline occupy the best rooms, and try to control the food ordering and such. But all in all, the women are happy, and soon Lotty -- who has blossomed the most -- decides she must invite her husband to come. And she badgers Rose to also invite her husband, though Rose is reluctant. Rose, indeed, has been doing some soul searching, and has fully acknowledged to herself her unhappiness, even while she is still in love with Frederick, and she is deathly afraid of him rejecting her if she asks him to come to Italy.

Meanwhile, Lady Caroline too is doing soul searching -- realizing that despite all her privilege and her money, her life is rather empty. She begins to, against her will in a sense, open up to Lotty. Mrs. Fisher remains a rather mean snob, alas. And when she starts to hear that "husbands" may start showing up, she gets her back up rather.

The resolution, then, turns on the arrival of the men -- both husbands, and also their landlord, the owner of the castle, Mr. Briggs. I won't go into any detail about this -- some of it is very cleverly done, and there are some sweet scenes, and some very funny scenes. (Mr. Wilkins, a crashing bore, is in particular quite a funny character. And Frederick's arrival is, well, interesting!) The end result is, I think, roughly what we've expected all along, but I have to say I found it in some ways disappointing.

In the two novels of hers I've read, The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight and The Enchanted April, von Arnim's best writing by far has been satirical* -- rather gently so, mind you. She can be very funny indeed. Alas, in neither of these novels is that sustained as fully as I'd have preferred, and the machinations to bring about the expected romantic conclusions don't fully convince. The Enchanted April is the better novel of the two, however, and while as I said I was not fully satisfied, I'm glad I read it, and it was enjoyable. I do plan to seek out the movie.

(*I am told that von Arnim's personal favorite of her novels, Vera (1921), is much darker, indeed perhaps a "nightmare", so von Arnim did have a wider range.)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Novels of Carol Emshwiller

The Novels of Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

I've done a few posts over the years (decades) quickly summarizing the novel length works of various SF writers. So here is one on Carol Emshwiller -- one of the true great writers in SF history, but a writer who did her best work at shorter lengths. That said that, she wrote six novels, of which the first three are, in my opinion, excellent, and the final three are quite good. 

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

Carmen Dog (1988)

This novel is a delight. As it opens, we learn that all over the world, women are transforming into animals (of all kinds) and animals are transforming into women. The main character is a dog named Pooch, who is becoming a woman. Pooch is devoted to her master and the baby, and when her master's wife, who is changing to some sort of water creature, bites the baby, she decides she must take the baby away. Pooch has also discovered a talent for opera singing, and loves Carmen above all. The novel follows Pooch's escape, her arrest, her horrifying treatment by an experimental psychologist, another escape and finally connection with a revolutionary group.

This novel manages to be both very funny, very moving, and quite pointed. It's a deeply feminist novel, and through Pooch's naive ears we hear pointed observations about how men perceive women -- both those animals who have been "uplifted" and those humans whose nature is tending towards the animalistic. The revolution is most assuredly aimed at allowing women to be free of male expectations -- but at the same time is not anti-men -- just desiring a future for men and women in which both flourish cooperatively. As the revolution's manifesto goes: "Neither Conqueror nor Conquered, Neither Victory nor Defeat." It is simply a very fun novel, and a very thought-provoking one. It's beautifully imagined, sly, sweet, witty, and inspiring. 

Ledoyt (1995)

The novel is set mostly between 1902 and 1910. We begin with Lotti, a 14 year old girl, writing in her journal, dated 1910, "it all began in the spring of 1902." What began? Well, that's when Beal Ledoyt, whose brother T-Bone is a neighbor to Lotti's mother, Oriana Cochran, shows up looking for work. T-Bone suggests she help out Mrs. Cochran, who came from the East a few years before with her young daughter. 

The point of view jumps between Lotti and Oriana and Beal and eventually Lotti's new brother Fayette. It also jumps back and forth in time, though it's not entirely non-linear. (The 1910 thread, in particular, always moves forward.) Oriana and Beal both have a hard time trusting themselves -- neither sees themselves as worthy of the other. Each believes their dark histories (not at all their own faults) have ruined them somehow. And Lotti is herself confused by the relationship between Oriana and Beal, and by her own lack of a father. 

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

Leaping Man Hill (1999)

Leaping Man Hill is a sequel to Ledoyt, set about a decade after the end of that novel, with Lotti (now called Charlotte) more or less the head of the family, as her mother has never recovered from the loss of her husband, and her brothers, Fay and nine year old Abel, do not even speak. As the novel opens she hires Mary Catherine to help teach Abel. 

Mary Catherine has her own scars -- a worthless and grasping mother who cycles through a series of abusive boyfriends (scarily abusive to Mary Catherine, I should add.) Mary Catherine her self is intelligent but socially awkward. She does work hard, and she establishes a bond with Abel. And then she falls hard for Hen, the nephew of Beal Ledoyt (Abel's cousin). Abel has just returned from the war, and has severe PTSD, and has lost an arm. 

Hen is tortured by Mary Catherine -- he's attracted to her but feels himself wholly unworthy of anyone, and worried about his violent bursts, and still remembers his French girlfriend. He delights in Mary Catherine's delight in simple things like the view off the hill behind his shack, and hates that she clearly loves him, and convinces her that he will never marry.

The story then follows the course of their relationship, with flashbacks to Hen's time in the army. There are some shocking events, and some sweet ones -- a trip to San Francisco, for example, with Hen showing off his musical virtuousity and showing her things she's never seen before, like bars on the wrong side of town, fancy restaurants, even the opera. Abel opens up more and more. Mary Catherine cooks for everyone. She becomes close to Charlotte, and to Hen's mother. Fay returns. Charlotte's painter friend (from Ledoyt) comes by. Mary Catherine's dreadful mother and her latest "special friend" try to extort money from her (and worse.)  There are illnesses and fights and running away, also love, beauty, hard work. Passages of great beauty, great power, and also sadness.

Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill are somewhat hard to find. I think they are both ripe for reprinting, perhaps by an ambitious small presses, feminist or otherwise.

The Mount (2002)

The Mount is fairly straightforward science fiction. In simplest terms, it tells of a revolution againstalien invaders. These invaders, called "Hoots", are physically weak and small, but over generations they have bred humans to serve them as "Mounts". The humans, then, become essentially pets to the aliens, treated a great deal like horses are treated by present day humans. Thus the novel explores, quite thoughtfully, human/pet relationships, master/slave relationships, and the question of freedom versus comfort.

There are a few different viewpoint characters, but the story is mainly told through the eye of Charley, an especially prized young Mount who is the property of the son of a very high-ranking Hoot. Charley is extremely proud, to the point of vanity, of his abilities as a Mount. And his relationship with his Hoot, who he calls "Little Master", is complex but largely loving. Loving, though, in an almost creepy Master-Slave fashion. Charley, it turns out, is the son of a rebellious human, who has gone off to live in the wilderness, and who plots to free all humans, but particularly his son. The novel's main action turns on the initial success of this scheme, and then on the ambiguous results. Charley is by no means sure that freedom is all it's cracked up to be, and moreover he misses his "Little Master". He's also jealous of his father's relationship with a woman not his mother -- his mother, of course, being basically a brood mare chosen by the Hoots.

The plot twists a couple of times from there, coming to a moving, thoughtful, and balanced resolution, if not exactly a terribly original one. The storytelling is clear and interesting. The age of the protagonist, the theme, and the relatively simple storytelling make this novel, I would think, appealing to younger readers, but it certainly will satisfy adults as well.

Mister Boots (2005)

Mister Boots, as with The Mount, might be considered a YA novel. It also is, in setting and timeframe, not dissimilar to her great Westerns, Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill. It is about a girl named Bobby Lassiter, who has just turned 10 as we meet her. She is living in the California desert with her mother and her 20 year old sister. The depression is just around the corner, but this family knows poverty just fine -- they barely scrape by on the proceeds of the older women's knitting. The father, who was evidently terribly abusive (physically -- whippings of all three -- not sexually) left them when Bobby was very young. Bobby (full name Roberta) is apparently called Bobby because the father wanted a boy -- and, indeed, no one but her sister and mother knows she's a girl.

She meets a man on their property one night, who tells her he is really a horse, named Mister Boots. He too has been abused by his human owners. Bobby feeds and clothes him, and eventually takes him home. Events follow quickly from their. The mother dies. Mister Boots and the older girl, Jocelyn, fall in love. Their father, Robert Lassiter, returns and the abuse begins again. He wants Bobby to become a magician, just like him -- and she finds she is good at that, and wants to do it. They head to LA (Bobby dressed as a boy -- which her father still thinks she is), and become a successful magic act, despite Mister Boots's refusal to turn into a horse onstage. Bobby makes her first ever friendship with a girl her age: a similarly bereft Mexican girl named Rosie whom she meets in a sort of hobo camp. They meet their father's long time mistress -- or is she really his wife, and are they illegitimate? But then the Depression hits, and the money dries up, and things get worse and worse, until a final revelation and a final horrible act.

It's a charming and hopeful story in one sense, with a delightful narrator in Bobby. (Yet a real seeming narrator -- not a prodigy, for instance, and far from a perfect person.) Yet it is also quite dark -- the depression, the abuse, and a somewhat tragic denouement. Which I think means it's really pretty much like real life. A very fine little novel.

The Secret City (2007)

This tells the story of Lorpas, an alien whose parents were among a group marooned on Earth. His whole life he has wandered, keeping the secret of his identity, and sometimes searching for the rumored "Secret City" that some of his fellow aliens may have built somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas. The other viewpoint character is Allush, also an alien born on Earth. She lives in the Secret City, with only two others: her surrogate mother Mollish, and an aggressive male, Youpas. Youpas has already killed three human archaeologists who nearly stumbled on the City -- and when Lorpas finds his way there he tries to kill him. Lorpas and Allush fall in love, and decide to try to return to human civilization. In their ways they have learned to love the Earth. But then a rescue party arrives -- and Allush is taken to their home planet, while Lorpas remains, with a newly marooned member of the rescuers.

The novel describes Allush's disturbing experiences on the aliens’ planet, and Lorpas's troubles with human law enforcement, his adventures with the newly marooned alien, and also problems with the still violent Youpas. Those three get work with a rancher, and their position is further compromised by the rancher’s young daughter's fascination with one of them. And then Allush returns ... 

The Secret City is sweetly involving. Refreshingly, humans are portrayed as neither markedly inferior nor markedly superior to the aliens. Both species have problems, noticeably class problems. Redemption and happiness come from personal connections. Both narrators are good but naïve sorts, giving the novel an innocent sort of voice, not dissimilar to the voice of the narrators of Emshwiller’s other recent novels. 


Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: Mindwipe!, by "Steve Hahn" (Stephen Robinett)

Review: Mindwipe!, by "Steve Hahn" (Stephen Robinett)

by Rich Horton

Stephen Robinett was one of John W. Campbell's last discoveries, his first story appearing in the March 1969 Analog as by "Tak Hallus". (Campbell actually published first stories by a few writers who had careers of some significance, and one truly major writer, in the last years before his death -- other examples are Stepan Chapman, Rob Chilson, and James Tiptree, Jr.) Robinett/Hallus had a serial part in the first issue of Analog I bought, August 1974, and indeed he was an Analog regular throughout Ben Bova's time there, and he followed Bova to Omni. In 1975 he abandoned the "Tak Hallus" pseudonym for his own name. I had enjoyed his stories in Analog, and his two novels, Stargate (serialized in Analog, June through August 1974; in book form in 1976) and The Man Responsible (1978). But after the early '80s he seemed to disappear. It turns out he had published two crime novels in 1990, but then fell silent, presumably because he had contracted Hodgkin's Disease. He died, only 62, in 2004.

I did not know that he had published another SF novel, for Roger Elwood's notorious imprint Laser Books. (Laser Books was an imprint of Harlequin, and used a similar formula to Harlequin's romance line -- all the novels were 190 pages, with fairly strict rules about content.) Robinett's novel was Mindwipe! (1976), expanded from his second published story, which appeared as by "Tak Hallus" in the December 1969 issue of Analog. He chose to publish this novel as by "Steve Hahn", why I can't say, though perhaps he wasn't terribly proud of it. To be sure, given the Analog publication of a shorter version, the pseudonym was pretty transparent. 

I recently reread The Man Responsible and decided maybe I'd go ahead and read Robinett's complete works. And so I had to read this book. I also have the December 1969 Analog, and so I read the original story (just called "Mindwipe", no exclamation point), which is a long novelette or short novella, right around 17,000 words.

Laser Books, I will add, do not have a good reputation. The restrictive format, and Elwood's rather iffy taste, certainly were issues, and I suspect they didn't pay all that well, either. Not surprisingly, they published a lot of newer writers. In that context, some of the most admired Laser Books, in retrospect, are two from Tim Powers (The Skies Discrowned and Epitaph in Rust) and one from K. W. Jeter (Seeklight), as well as Augustine Funnell's only two novels (Brandyjack and Rebels of Merka.) In all honest, Mindwipe! does not stand with any of those novels -- it's a pretty weak effort.

It opens with Ernie Schwab, a lowly laborer on a cargo starship, being summoned to the surface of the planet, Paria, that his ship has reached. Paria is an unprepossessing place, inhabited by intelligent ratlike aliens who dig tunnels all over the place, and the small human concession mines valuable minerals from the dirt the aliens dig up. Schwab has no idea why he's there, but suddenly he feels a compulsion to look in on the human governor -- and without knowing what he's doing, he is telepathically sucking out the contents of the governor's mind: a mindwipe. While Schwab had been identified as a low-level telepath, he certainly didn't know how to mindwipe.

What he's done is a crime, of course (punishable by, essentially, mindwiping) so he tries to run, and finds himself in the Parian tunnels. But this is fruitless, and soon he's arrested, and taken back to Earth. His conviction seems certain, but he hires a lawyer, E. W. Benson. Most of the rest of the story is told from Benson's viewpoint. (Robinett, a lawyer himself, very often used lawyers as viewpoint characters.) Benson knows it will be hard to get his client off, but he is determined to do his best, partly motivated by his dislike for the prosecutor, a fairly honest but pedantic and annoying man. Benson is quickly convinced that his client believes he is innocent, but the evidence still seems damning. There is one detail -- a name, Regina, that was present in the governor's mind as he was mindwiped. 

Benson arranges a trip to Paria, and then Schwab complicates things by escaping from prison and also coming to Paria. But there are a couple more details to track down -- a mysterious footprint Schwab has remembered from his time in the alien tunnels, and more details on the mysterious Regina, who seems to have been a powerful telepath and who left her home for that reason. In addition, a mining company official has been importuning Benson, and there have even been what seem like attempts on his life. It turns out the governor was concerned about exploitation of the aliens. This gives the company a motive to eliminate the the governor, but there is also a hotel owner who stands to lose business if humans abandon the planet to the natives. Benson and Schwab end up going into the alien tunnel complex, trying to ... well, the reader will guess more or less what's going on.

The novel is really a kind of mess, that has the glimmerings of an interesting idea at its core, but never quite resolves it satisfyingly. The telling is OK, except there's a fair amount of padding -- the rival lawyer's jabbering goes on too long, the encounter with the hotel owner is a waste of time, even Schwab's escape is boring and silly. And the final resolution is in the neighborhood of reasonable, but terribly muddled.

I read the original Analog story, which is less than a third the length of the novel. It eliminates most of the padding -- the story is entirely from Benson's POV, the hotel owner is not mentioned, the rival lawyer is a minor character, the attempts on Benson's life are gone. All this is to the good. All that said, the resolution remains a bit of a muddle. It's really a minor story, and the novel is even worse. 

Robinett, I emphasize, did lots of better work. But this is a throwaway effort.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Review: Leaping Man Hill, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Leaping Man Hill, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

I reviewed Carol Emshwiller's Ledoyt several months ago. Leaping Man Hill is its sequel. My review of it will necessarily contain spoilers for Ledoyt, so for those who haven't read that novel and are allergic to spoilers, let me just say: Go read Ledoyt! Both it and Leaping Man Hill are simply wonderful novels, full of tragedy and of sweetness, of hardship and of love, of landscape and work and history and people. They are great novels, and woefully underappreciated. I'll begin. by recapitulating the introductory paragraphs to my review of Ledoyt. If you want to skip the Leaping Man Hill review, stop after those. 

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

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

OK, the new review starts here.

Leaping Man Hill is told a bit more straightforwardly than Ledoyt. As noted above, it's set just after WWI. One primary viewpoint characters are Mary Catherine, a 19 year old girl who has been hired by Charlotte (Lotti of Ledoyt) to teach her 9 year old brother Abel, who had been born at the end of Ledoyt. Charlotte is, mostly on her own though with some help from her brother Fay, running the ranch/farm that her mother had in Ledoyt. Her mother has not truly recovered from her husband's death (the climax of Ledoyt.) Neither, really, have Fay and Abel, neither of whom will speak. It is Charlotte's hope that Mary Catherine will not just teach Abel but bring him to speak.

The other main character is Hen, or Henny, or Henry, or Henri, the only son of the wealthy neighboring Ledoyt family. (The patriarch of this family is the brother of the title character of Ledoyt.) Hen has just returned from fighting in the War. He lost his arm in the war, and he had a love affair with a French woman which her parents thwarted. And he has extreme survivor guilt and intense PTSD (then called shell shock, though neither term is used in this book.) He mostly holes up in a shabby shack, and goes into the nearby town mainly to get into fights, which he always loses.

Mary Catherine also has scars. Her mother was (is) a "fallen woman", and not in a nice way. Mary Catherine has no idea who her father was, and she has endured life wiht a series of so-called "stepfathers", many of them sexually and/or physically abusive. She was helped by a sympathetic teacher with whom she sheltered for a while, and she's an intelligent young woman. She's been teaching other families since she got out of school herself, and trying to avoid her awful and grasping mother.

Mary Catherine vigorously starts working with Abel, who is difficult to control -- as noted, he doesn't speak, and he also is an avid climber. She uses severe pinching to get his attention, with indifferent success, and she tries to help out around the house, and starts making slow progress. For a bit she wonders if she should marry Fay, but then he meets Hen, and immediately falls very hard for him. Things start to happen rapidly -- Fay runs away, Oriana tries to find him, Mary Catherine and Henry try to but in the end it's Abel -- who is with her when she dies. 

Hen is tortured by Mary Catherine -- he's attracted to her but feels himself wholly unworthy of anyone, and worried about his violent bursts, and still remembers his French girlfriend. He delights in Mary Catherine's delight in simple things like the view off the hill behind his shack, and hates that she clearly loves him, and convinces her that he will never marry.

The story then follows the course of their relationship, with flashbacks to Hen's time in the army. There are some shocking events, and some sweet ones -- a trip to San Francisco, for example, with Hen showing off his musical virtuousity and showing her things she's never seen before, like bars on the wrong side of town, fancy restaurants, even the opera. Abel opens up more and more. Mary Catherine cooks for everyone. She becomes close to Charlotte, and to Hen's mother. Fay returns. Charlotte's painter friend (from Ledoyt) comes by. Mary Catherine's dreadful mother and her latest "special friend" try to extort money from her (and worse.)  There are illnesses and fights and running away, also love, beauty, hard work. Passages of great beauty, great power, humor, and also sadness.

I haven't gotten to the heart of what makes these books so good -- I'm not the writer Carol Emshwiller was! But they are truly special. Gorgeously written. Mary Catherine's voice is great. There are lines here and there in the novel that just glow. There are things that happen that are very hard to take, and there are things that are impossibly sweet. Some small press needs to get Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill back in print! (Maybe the Dorothy Project in my home town? :) )

Friday, March 15, 2024

Review: Edges, by Linda Nagata

Review: Edges, by Linda Nagata

by Rich Horton

Linda Nagata published four novels in the 1990s that got considerable notice -- Tech-Heaven, The Bohr Maker, Deception Well, and Vast. For whatever reason, though I was tempted, and though I bought a copy of Vast, I never got around to reading them. They are all set in a common future history, stretching forward at least a couple of thousand years, and a couple of hundred light years, as humans colonize a good chunk of the localish star systems, and undergo significant changes themselves, and encounter the Berserker-like Chenzeme: alien spaceships left by a long gone race, with the goal of exterminating any technological civilizations they find. She won the 2001 Nebula for Best Novella with "Goddesses". 

Then, it seems, her publishing career went the way of all too many solid midlist writers. I met her at a convention a number of years ago, at a kaffeeklatsch, and she discussed her new publishing model: self publishing via her own press, Mythic Island. She was working on a new trilogy, The Red, which as it happened, after the first novel came out from Mythic Island, found a home with traditional publisher Saga Press, and which garnered a couple more award nominations. She also published some more excellent short fiction -- I reprinted three of her stories in my best of the year series. Her novels since the Red trilogy have come out from Mythic Island.*

With all this, I knew I needed to try her novels, but my short fiction reading schedule made that hard. That schedule has eased however, and recently she mentioned somewhere the release of Blade, the fourth novel in a new series collectively called Inverted Frontier. I figured I should start with the first in the series, which is the book at hand, Edges, which was published in 2019. I went looking for an audio version, and was delighted to find that Edges is available free in that form. So I got it, and I've read it. (It is narrated, very well, by Nicole Poole.)

It turns out that the Inverted Frontier books are set in the same future as her 1990s novels. Indeed, Edges is a more or less direct sequel (if hundreds of years later) to Vast, and the two books share some characters. The novel opens with Riffan Naja serving on Deception Well's ship Long Watch, monitoring space for evidence of a Chenzeme attack. (I confess that I first heard the name as "Griffin", which became amusing later on when a starship named Griffin became part of the plot.) Riffan is an anthropologist who has a particular interest in studying the collapsed human civilizations "inward" (towards Earth, that is) -- civilizations that were either destroyed by the Chenzeme or failed on their own -- many of them had cloaked their stars in Dyson swarms, which have since disappeared, so that the stars are again visible. (Deception Well's people call these the Hollowed Vasties.) An intruder spaceship is suddenly detected, and it has Chenzeme features. But as it nears there is a message, a human voice, urging them not to shoot.

They soon realize that this is a captured and subverted Chenzeme ship, and its sole crewmember is Urban, who had been part of the Null Boundary expedition from Deception Well several hundred years before. (This expedition is, I understand, the subject of Vast.) And suddenly another member of that expedition -- or a version of her -- is awakened from cold sleep on the Long Watch. We realize (and readers of Nagata's earlier novels presumably already know) that humans in this future are long-lived, either in their physical bodies, or by spending time in cold sleep, or by copying themselves (as "ghosts") into computational substrates. Clemantine has had a copy of herself in cold sleep, waiting for news -- of danger, or of something like the return of the Null Boundary expedition. And she now realizes that if Urban has returned alone, she herself as well as the other members of the expedition, did not. 

Urban has a message -- he's not returning home. He wants to continue inward, towards the Hollowed Vasties. He wants company in the form of Clemantine, who had been his lover. They soon reignite their relationship (with Urban, who had been a ghost, occupying a newly grown body.) And she agrees to accompany him -- but right away Riffan and another of the Long Watch crew, Pasha, ask to join them. And before long, there are dozens more Deception Well citizens sending ghosts to Urban's ship (the Dragon) with the intention to also explore the Hollowed Vasties.

The plot of this novel, then, turns on two conflicts. One is political disagreements among the sixty plus people now on the Dragon -- which at first doesn't have room to host them all physically, or even as active ghosts. The other concerns a mysterious "entity" who at first shows up in a separate series of chapters -- apparently a much altered human who was exiled to an uninhabited rock in the area between Deception Well and the Hollowed Vasties. Inevitably, the Dragon is lured to the signs of activity at that rock, and when the "entity" manages to send a copy of itself to the Dragon, the question arises -- is this creature even human? Is it friendly (as it claims) or dangerous? That question too divides the Dragon's new population.

There's a lot more going on. And while some of the main questions are answered, others are unresolved, and further complications are set in place -- just as we expect for the first book of a five book series. That's OK, mind you. This book is exciting and stuffed with good old-fashioned Sense of Wonder. The plot is cool -- Nagata manages to make fights between disembodied patterns of data both comprehensible and exciting. There is real tension, real human relationships to deal with, cool technology, and an ending that promises more wonders -- after all, the Dragon (and some companion ships that eventuate!) has not yet even reached the first star they wish to visit in the Hollowed Vasties.

I'm not at all sure how different the experience would be to someone who had read Vast and its predecessors. I will say that Edges works quite well without knowledge of the other books -- but there are some things I really want to know that I realize I'll have to read at least Vast to learn. (Which is hardly a bad thing.) 

The book is gloriously stuffed with cool SFnal ideas, mostly ones we've seen before but expertly wielded here. It's an example of far future SF that I would call "hard SF" even though I find some of the technology implausible. (I think that the farther in the future a writer goes, the more important it is to have implausible (and often likely impossible) tech -- because it would also be implausible to imply that thousands of years from now our understanding of science won't have revealed unimagined wonders.) So -- in this book we have uploaded minds, cold sleep, exotic tech that propels starships at significant fractions of light speed (but no FTL), multiple versions of oneself (and lots of different ideas among different persons about the identity questions that arise), group minds or hive minds implied (not really seen yet), genocidal robot ships, Dyson swarms, body-swapping and body alterations, astronomical wonders, and more. It's a great deal of fun, exciting, scary. And now I'll have to read the rest! 

*This career path seems to have been taken (or been forced upon them) by a number of really fine older writers recently -- besides Nagata I can cite Greg Egan, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Brenda Clough at least. I think it can work for writers who have established an audience and who have the experience to realize they need editing and other forms of help (and, hey, I know there are new writers who have had success in this fashion as well.) For all that, it does make me sad that traditional publishing seems less likely to support writers with established reputations who may be unlikely to produce a major bestseller but who still write good books that should sell at some reasonable level.