Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Review: Hester, by Margaret Oliphant

Review: Hester, by Margaret Oliphant

a review by Rich Horton

Here I continue my discovery of Victorian writers. This ongoing project has been as rewarding as any reading I have done for a long time. There is something in the Victorian approach -- partly the prose, partly the particular angle on realist fiction, partly the portrayal of an interesting historical time, and also, I think, the use of author-viewpoint omniscient. I maintain that this is a tremendous way to tell a story, and the more recent insistence on, typically, either first-person or tight-third (sometimes tight-third with multiple viewpoints) is an overreaction. Those are certainly valid choices for many stories, but the near abandonment of omniscient is a loss of a great tool.

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant was born in Scotland in 1828. Her mother was named Margaret Oliphant, her father Francis Wilson. She married a cousin, Frank Wilson Oliphant (the name suggests he may have been a double cousin.) They moved to London, and had six children. Frank, a stained glass artist, contracted tuberculosis, and the family moved to Italy for his health, but he died there. Margaret returned to England, to Windsor. She had already published some novels and stories, and now set to work writing regularly to support her family. Her life was generally sad, it seems -- all six of her children predeceased her, and so did other family members (a couple of dissolute brothers) whom she supported. She wrote quickly, and ended up publishing 93 novels, as well as some nonfiction (including a rather frank autobiography) and many stories, some of these supernatural. She died in 1897, at 69. 

Her prolificity may have harmed her reputation. Indeed she herself worried about her literary status, in particular with respect to George Eliot. But if she concluded that she would not be ranked with Eliot by posterity -- which proved true, of course -- it does not follow that her work was negligible. Indeed, to be the second best, or fourth or tenth best!, Victorian novelist is hardly anything to be ashamed of. And on the evidence of Hester -- considered perhaps her best novel -- she was very good indeed at the top of her form.

Hester was published in 1883. As with most of her work, it was signed Mrs. Oliphant. This was common practice for married women writers at that time, but the present day editions tend to use the writer's full name. That said, Mrs. Oliphant was how she chose to sign her books, and certainly that may have been a surrender to convention, but there is also evidence that, especially in her case, her identity as "Mrs. Oliphant" was important to her, perhaps especially given her husband's early death, and the fact that Oliphant was her mother's maiden name.

Hester opens sometime in the late 1820s, with a careful description of the background to Vernon's, a provincial bank in the town of Redborough. The bank has a reputation for conservativism, making it a very safe place to keep your money. It has been owned for generations by the Vernon family, and the current owner is one John Vernon. He was expected to marry his cousin Catherine, who has as much hereditary right to the bank as he, but who will not be in charge because she's a woman. Instead, John marries a pretty woman who is part of a respected county family, and cousin to a baronet -- hence by some measures of higher social status than merely wealthy people like the Vernons. John builds a new house for his bride, and otherwise keeps her in luxury. And somehow the bank is not doing quite as well -- whether due to John Vernon's extravagance, or his poor management, or both, is not clear. Then comes a rumor of a run -- which will ruin the bank. John Vernon is nowhere to be found -- he has run away and abandoned his responsibilities. All is lost -- until Catherine Vernon is summoned, and, using her personal fortune (as a descendant of the bank's founder) and her, it turns out, very impressive management skills ("she has the brain of a man" people say, not entirely in an approving way) she saves the bank. Over the next few decades she makes it as successful as ever, and also establishes a reputation as a wonderful philanthropist.

In the late 1850s, after John Vernon dies in France, his wife and their 14 year old daughter return to England, and are offered a place in a house Catherine Vernon owns, called "The Vernonry" as a wry pun based on its original name, The Heronry. Catherine has retired from an active role in the bank, handing the reins to two cousins, Edward and Harry. Edward is Catherine's favorite, and the more intelligent of the two. Harry is much more stolid, and lazier, interested more in football than banking -- though he is faithful enough about doing his work. 

Hester and her mother, called Mrs. John, settle into their new rooms. The Vernonry has been subdivided into several apartments, and Oliphant takes great joy in sardonically portraying some of the other residents, particularly two sisters, Martha and Matilda Vernon-Ridgway; and another cousin, Mr. Mildmay Vernon. They are mean and jealous people, professing gratitude at the place Catherine has given them, but ever sarcastically snipping at her behind her back. There is another couple, Captain Rowley Morgan and his wife, who are in their 80s. Captain Morgan is a connection to Catherine on her mother's side, so "not really a Vernon" as the Miss Vernon-Ridgways insist, and they are more truly grateful to Catherine. Hester befriends the Morgans, and both in their way are moral beacons for her (even though they are not perfect people either.)

Hester herself is an energetic and intelligent girl, hoping to help her mother out by doing real work, such as teaching French to young women. She is also spirited enough to openly defy Catherine. The two set up as cordial enemies. And we realize that while Catherine's philanthropy is real, it is also a bit self-serving. And her attitude toward her beneficiaries, especially family members such as those in the Vernonry, is perceptibly condescending -- she fancies she can see through all their pretensions, and she probably can, but her response makes things no better.

Five years on comes the main action of the book. Hester is 19. She remains fiercely independent. But she has become something of a beauty. Harry's sister Ellen has married, and is setting herself up a social leader of the younger set in Redborough. Edward is inwardly chafing at his staid position as Catherine's more or less adopted son, and as her chosen leader of the bank; while publically he remains devoted, to the point of snubbing Hester at social events if Catherine is present while acting as if he is attracted to when they meet in other circumstances. Harry and Edward both are of an age they should probably marry, but there are precious few eligible women in their circle. Captain Morgan's grandson Roland is coming to visit him. 

So the stage is set. Harry is intrigued by Hester, but he is not at all an intellectual match for her. Edward begins to notice her more romantically, but she is troubled by his inability to honestly confront Catherine. Roland too is briefly an intriguing young man, but he is not terribly interested in marriage, and his grandfather is curiously cool to him -- it turns out, because his father was not a good person, and Captain Morgan fears he's ruined all his children, not to mention being a terrible husband to the Captain's daughter. And then Roland's sister Emma turns up -- and she is quite openly looking for her "chance" -- chance to marry, that is.

But I am making the novel seem like it has a marriage plot, as if the romance stories are the center of it. And that is not the case at all. For Hester does not want to be just a wife. She wants to do things. She wants to be a hero -- like, she ruefully acknowledges, her enemy Catherine Vernon was in saving the bank. And she also values truth, honesty. It's clear to the reader that whatever Edward's virtues, he is weak at the core, and not just in his treatment of Hester (and her mother.) And while Harry is pretty honest, he is also, as noted, a bit dull -- and not imaginative enough to give Hester scope for the life she may want. Roland himself is ambiguous -- his work is on the stock exchange, and that is suspicious, for it can involve dangerous speculation, and possibly outright dishonesty. And, indeed, he attracts the interest of Edward, and Harry, and Ellen's new husband -- will he play them for fools?

So -- the resolution beckons. Hester (even as the reader wants to warn her!) becomes intrigued by Edward's interest in her. Emma is angling for a proposal from another young man in Redborough. Roland has helped Ellen's husband, and Harry, and Edward, to make a bit of money with modest investments, but Edward wants to make a true fortune, so that he can escape Catherine's control. So Edward appropriates money that is truly owned by the bank, and starts to make risky investments, while hinting to Hester that they should marry and run away. And, inevitably, a crisis results ... I won't reveal the ending, though it's mostly not a surprise, if in some ways it defies expectations for this sort of novel. But it's involving and honest. 

What to say of the novel as a whole? It is truly delightful. Catherine and Hester are excellent characters. It's not much of a revelation to say that they are more like each other than either would like to admit. The minor characters are neat as well. The various residents of the Vernonry are a sort of chorus -- the nastier elements are comic relief, and Captain Morgan and his wife are oracles. The Morgans' granddaughter Emma is an excellent creation -- she is not likeable but she is understandable: she truly has been dealt a difficult hand as the youngest daughter of a genteel family sliding into poverty; and her grasping ways are both comic as displayed, and oddly forgiveable. Edward and Harry Vernon are perhaps closer to types, but useful and well-depicted types -- Edward the more intelligent but less honest, Harry quite definitely dull but true. Mrs. John Vernon is wonderfully portrayed -- a silly woman but a sweet woman.

And in the end, what we see, really, is an argument against the roles women in this society were forced into. Catherine escaped those roles -- but at some sacrifice. Mrs. John wholly accepted them, and ended up poor. Ellen tries to become a force in the only avenue available to her -- with some success but with a realization of that role's shallowness. And Hester -- Hester is left in almost tragic position. She is intelligent and strong and powerfully honest -- but there is no way for her to grow into her talents. The novel is also a successful social novel, portraying provincial life, and its limitations, along with the economic risks and injustices of 19th Century England.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Reviews of Brian Stableford's work, in his memory

Brian Stableford died yesterday, February 24, 2004, at age 75. I will have a fuller obituary elsewhere soon, but I thought to compile a number of reviews of his work I did, for 3SF magazine and for Locus.

The Omega Expedition (from 3SF, April 2003)

One of the most ambitious, coherent, and philosophically interesting Future Histories of recent years comes from the pen of Brian Stableford. This project began with his 1985 non-fiction book The Third Millennium, written with David Langford. In 1986 he published the first story set in that milieu, and throughout the 90s he published a quite a few further stories, set from the very near future to centuries ahead. 

He has capped this achievement with six novels: Inherit the Earth (1998), Architects of Emortality (1999), The Fountains of Youth (2000), The Cassandra Complex (2001), Dark Ararat (2002), and finally The Omega Expedition (2002). Most of the novels are expansions of earlier short stories. The central theme of the entire project is "emortality": the realization of the dream of indefinitely prolonged human life. The books and stories sketch a future in which human life is nearly destroyed by the Plague Wars of the 21st Century, and in which the entire ecosystem undergoes a nearly terminal crash. But from the ashes rises a near utopia: nanotechnology allows for greatly extended lifespans, while various biotechnological innovations rescue the biosphere. A variety of strategies for true "emortality" arise, including genetic changes, "cyborgization" -- integration of mechanical devices into the body, and even "chimerization" (based on the completely different biology of a different planet), which will allow people to adapt their bodies to radically different environments. But as The Omega Expedition opens, there is a long-term threat to this utopia, in the form of the "Afterlife", mindless beings that eat anything organic in their path. As it turns out, there is also another much nearer term threat.

The action in the book turns on the unfreezing of Adam Zimmerman, one of the key figures of the early 21st Century, a man obsessed with immortality, who finally had himself frozen with instructions that he be awakened when immortality was possible. The main viewpoint character, however, is Madoc Tamlin, who is awakened as a sort of trial run for Zimmerman. Tamlin had been kind of a "fixer" for a member of the ruling elite of the 22nd Century, and he was apparently frozen as punishment for some crime he can't remember. He soon learns that he has been roused by one faction of 31st century emortals, people who have their physical development arrested before puberty. Before long the other factions are involved as well, but then the small group of reawakened sleepers and advocates of various forms of emortality are kidnapped. 

From this point the main thrust of the novel revolves around the threat of devastating war, and a brave attempt to avert this war. But instead of action, we get lots of talk, arguably too much. I will say, though, that I found the talk interesting and quite thought provoking. Stableford uses this platform to discuss the meaning of life, the definition of intelligence, and how to make truly extended lives worthwhile. So, though the book is a bit static, on balance I found it absorbing and a very worthy capstone to an impressive feat of extended speculation.

Dark Ararat (3SF, December 2002)

Brian Stableford has spent some time working out an interesting "future history" based mostly on advanced biotechnology. In a number of stories, and a planned six novels, he has told of a 21st century under increasing ecological stress, eventually wracked by Plague Wars which threaten the survival of humanity. Biotech created the plagues, but biotech also created the solutions, which include practical "emortality" (arbitrarily extended lifespans) for humans, and a genetically engineered biosphere that will allow Earth to survive without ecocatastrophe.

Dark Ararat is the fifth novel in the series, and sort of an offshoot. At the beginning of the 22nd century as Earth seemed to face certain disaster, a series of generation ships were launched. One of these ships has arrived after hundreds of years at a new planet. Biologist and TV personality Matthew Fleury is awakened to find that things aren't going quite as planned. The crew of the ship, adapted over generations to onboard life, wants to drop off the colonists and continue traveling. But the first wave of colonists is not sure this new planet can be made habitable. And one of Fleury's colleagues has just been murdered. It is his job, along with a policeman revived along with him, to both investigate the murder, and to investigate the biological mysteries of the planet.

Not surprisingly it is the scientific mystery which dominates. Life on this planet is organized around a very different encoding molecule to DNA, and one result of this is that most organisms are some form of chimera. There are also hints of possible intelligent life, and there are hints that this chimerization may result in another form of emortality. Fleury investigates all these things, at the same time giving us a neat tour of the strange planet, while he and the policeman somewhat perfunctorily solve the murder mystery. The eventual scientific explanation is rather clever, though on a few grounds I was underwhelmed. One shortcoming may lie with me: I couldn't quite grasp all the scientific details. Another is quite common in my experience of Stableford: his portrayal of human relationships, especially romantic ones, is very distanced, and it is hard to get inside his characters. Finally, the wrapping up is very rapid, and perhaps too convenient. Still, it's in many ways a neat book – good SF for SF's sake.

From Locus, June 2002

Brian Stableford's "Taking the Piss" is a very amusing story about advances in bio-engineering. Stableford extrapolates from recent genetic modifications to animals to have their bodies create useful substances (I seem to recall that scientists have managed to get silk from sheep's milk). It turns out, in Stableford's future, that some biological engineering is best done using human hosts. This becomes a low class job, for folks such as Darren, the aimless young man who narrates this story. But the human body is a complex thing, and the specific proteins created from a certain genetic modification can be quite different from person to person. When Darren's engineered urine turns out to create something unexpected, he is potentially quite valuable. As such he is a target for industrial espionage, and also perhaps a national security asset. Stableford wraps some interesting extrapolation in a clever and quite funny story of competing economic interests.

From Locus, September 2002

January's issue of The Silver Web is their fifteenth. Editor Ann Kennedy chooses a decidedly slipstreamish mix. My favorite story this issue is Brian Stableford's "Oh Goat-Foot God of Arcady", which is mostly straight science fiction, with a (possibly metaphorical) intrusion of fantasy in the appearances of the title being, Pan, to the main character, a woman musing on her upcoming marriage to a man who is interested (and why?) in the possibilities of using genetic engineering to create human/animal chimeras. The tale is slyly told, and the mixture of the appearances of Pan with the conversational unfolding of the story behind the possible creation of chimeras works strikingly well. 

From Locus, February 2003

Brian Stableford does biological speculation as well as any writer. His latest is "A Chip off the Old Block", in which young Stevie turns out to have a potentially valuable genetic feature. But who owns his genes? Stevie becomes the focus of a bidding war, complicated by the fact that his mother and father are going through a divorce. This is a first rate look at not so much near future scientific progress as at the unexpected social consequences of such progress – and the laws surrounding it. 

From Locus, January 2004

Brian Stableford's "Nectar" is another of his stories set in a near-utopian future in which human lifespans have been enormously extended, and in which children (for that and other reasons) are very rare. Sara is an adolescent, one of only a few nearby. She gets fitted for an ornamental attachment -- a quasi-living rose. But it unexpectedly attracts not just butterflies, but shadowbats, a very new creation: more artificial life used as body art. She tracks down the old man who designed these particular creatures, hoping simply that he can fix them so they won't bother her. But her visit leads to more momentous discoveries, and changes. More solid work from one of the most consistently interesting writers of hard SF.

From Locus, July 2006

Plenty of solid reading in the August Asimov’s. The novella is a wild alternate history/fantasy from Brian Stableford, “The Plurality of Worlds”, in which a spaceship (or ethership) is constructed in late 16th Century England, for Queen Jane (presumably Lady Jane Grey survived). The five man crew are Thomas Digge, John Foxe, and three more familiar names: Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Edward De Vere (Earl of Oxford, and perhaps the most fashionable current alternate Shakespeare). The possibility of making a spaceship in the 16th Century rather implies a different cosmology, and so this story supposes: the ether turns out to be breathable, and the planned trip to the moon results in an encounter with some very odd creatures, and a trip to a much farther star, where the humans learn something of man’s insignificance. 

From Locus, October 2006

Weird Tales continues a very strong year with an issue full of enjoyable stories. It opens with a long, gleefully mordant, story from Brian Stableford, “The Elixir of Youth”, in which a winemaker’s two sons fall out over the title potion. One ends up dead in a cask of wine, his body full of the elixir, which does remarkable things for the wine. But it does much worse things for the psyches of those people who find out about it: the winemaker and his surviving son, their liege lord and his heir, and so on. 

From Locus, February 2007

Brian Stableford’s “Dr. Muffet’s Island” (Asimovs, March), is a sequel to last year’s “The Plurality of Worlds”. In this one Francis Drake, having been branded a madman for his story of his adventures in space in that story, is attempting to find a large island in the central Pacific, based on a map drawn from space. But to his surprise he finds a British ship already there, with a small colony, and in particular a scientist attempting to breed spiders. All turns out to be related to schemes of a group of “celestial spiders”, enemies of the insect people from the previous story. It makes for enjoyable and outré storytelling … and likely more to come.

From Locus, February 2008

And Brian Stableford’s “Following the Pharmers” is a particularly good piece about a genetic engineering-dominated future. Radical genetic engineering is viewed with suspicion, both by the law and by the corporations (“Big Pharma”). The narrator is a small-time “pharmer”, living alone and cultivating psychotropic drugs. His privacy is threatened by a new neighbor, an activist who wants to change the rules, to force humans to become “masters of evolution”, to rectify the sloppiness of natural selection. She presses the narrator to help her – but he has a secret, involving his own past career, and his lost wife, and he is dangerous to push too far – not necessarily by his own desire.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Review: Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie

Review: Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie

by Rich Horton

Jennifer Crusie (real name Jennifer Smith) is a popular author of romance novels (with crime aspects). Her early career was as a teacher (in grade schools), and she has an MFA and taught in college and written criticism. She began writing category romances (i.e. from publishers like Harlequin) in the early '90s but broke out into general fiction in the later '90s.* Most of her books, at least after this switch, combine romance with mystery plots. In the past 20 years or so, most of her fiction has been collaborations, particularly with Bob Mayer.

I have read several of her novels in the past, but I hadn't read one in a while. I found Fast Women (2001) at a used book sale, and gave it to my wife, but after she finished it I figured it looked fun so I decided to read it too. 

The main character is Nell Dysart, whose husband left her, and who is looking for a job. She's in her early 40s, and after quitting college to marry, she worked as her husband's secretary/office manager -- and she likes working. She takes a temporary position with McKenna Investigations, a detective agency, and quickly brings her organizing skills to bear -- much to Gabe McKenna's displeasure, as he doesn't like change. I think all romance readers can see where that's going from (checking book) page 5. 

I said Nell is the main character, and that's true, but this novel is in many ways an ensemble book. Besides Nell and Gabe, there's Gabe's partner and cousin Riley, and Nell's best friend Suze, who is married to Jack Dysart, one of Gabe's most reliable clients. Add in Nell's other friend Margie, who was formerly married to Jack Dysart's former partner Stewart Ogilvie but is now living with Ogilvie and Dysart's accountant Budge. Plus Gabe's ex-wife Chloe, and their daughter Lu. And Nell's son Jase. Plus of course Marlene (a dachsund.) (I actually would have found a family tree for the characters very helpful!)

Nell learns quickly that her predecessor, Lynnie, had been embezzling from the McKennas. Plus Jack Dysart gets a blackmail call. And there's a mystery about Gabe's father Patrick, who had died a couple decades before, leaving Gabe the agency and a Porsche 911. Plus there are a variety of regular clients, all of whom seem serial adulterers or spouses of adulterers, and are given names like the Quarterly Report and the Hot Lunch. And a lot of strange things start to happen, including Nell stealing a dog, diamonds turning up in various places, dead people being found in freezers, and arson. And Nell, Suze, and Margie continually debate their love lives -- they all need a change, largely (it seems to me) because they got married way too young. Plus they buy a lot of china. 

It's a fun novel, but not a great one. The best part by far is the dialogue -- fast, witty, snarky. There's some sex, and some action. The crime plot, I thought, was a bit overextended, a bit too complicated, with some really gruesome stuff happening that oddly doesn't hit home enough. And the resolution was slightly labored. It was mostly a skeleton (indeed, a skeleton in a closet) on which to hang the romance plot. The romances are mostly about women in their 30s and 40s (with one exception) and that's kind of refreshing, and there is a lot of meditation on how to establish a mature and equitable relationship with your spouse. In the end, then -- enjoyable but quite light.

(*I say general fiction but more as a marketing distinction -- her novels remained similar in style and focus, though they got much longer and were published in hardcover.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Fiction of Zoran Živković

This review first appeared at Locus Online way back in February of 2002 -- about the same time my first column for the magazine appeared. (I had been doing a few things for Locus Online before that, however.) I thought it worthwhile to reproduce it on my blog (though it can still be found buried in the archives of Locus Online), partly because I think Zoran Živković a writer who deserves our attention. I will add that he has written many more books than those reviewed here, and remains prolific today.

(I note that, unlike back in 2002, many of Živković's books are readily available (in attractive editions) now.)

The Fiction of Zoran Živković 

a review by Rich Horton

Time-Gifts, by Zoran Živković 

Impossible Encounters, by Zoran Živković 

Seven Touches of Music, by Zoran Živković 

Regular readers of the excellent UK magazine Interzone will have noticed in the past few years a pronounced attempt to publish SF in translation. Interzone has featured fine stories by Hiroe Suga (Japanese), Ayerdahl (French), and Jean-Claude Dunyach (also French). But their most prolific non-English Language contributor is the Serbian writer Zoran Živković, who lives in Belgrade. Approximately a dozen of his stories have graced the magazine since "The Astronomer" appeared in #144, for June 1999.

Živković's work is marked by a quiet and graceful style (smoothly translated by Alice Copple-Tošic with the editing assistance of Chris Gilmore), by an interest in time, in the effects of knowledge of the future and the past on people's lives, and by a pronounced tendency towards metafictional effects. Almost all his work is nominally SF (or fantasy), but the basic thrust is often more allied with the "mainstream" — the stories look closely at ordinary characters, as their lives are affected by curious fantastical incursions. But some few of these stories take a more directly SFnal tack — for instance "The Puzzle", one of my favorites, is at the same time a look at a man entering a lonely retirement, and a metaphor for the difficulty of communicating with the alien — or, perhaps, with anybody.

I've received three of Živkovic's books in English translation. Each book is a subtly linked series of short stories. The links are both thematic and metafictional — each book closes with a story in which the other stories are wryly alluded to. The oldest of these books, Time-Gifts (1997, tr. 1998) is available from Northwestern University Press, and through The other two books might be available from the publisher, Polaris, or one could read the stories in the various issues of Interzone in which they appear. (To the best of my knowledge, each story in Impossible Encounters and Seven Touches of Music will have appeared in Interzone by early 2002, though only one of the parts of Time-Gifts appeared there.) The books are very slim paperbacks, on high quality paper with nice covers — they are rather short, between 20,000 and 30,000 words each, I estimate.

Time-Gifts consists of four stories. "The Astronomer" concerns a medieval astronomer awaiting his execution for heresy. He entertains a mysterious visitor in his cell, who allows him to travel to the future, there to learn what effect, if any, his heroic opposition to the rigidity of the Church might have. He is left with an agonizing decision. The title character of "The Paleolinguist" is instead offered a trip to the distant past, where she can learn for herself whether or not her radical speculations about the origin of language were correct — but once again, such knowledge, and the means of gaining it, may be a decidedly mixed blessing. And "The Watchmaker" is vouchsafed the ability to alter a tragic event in his own past, but even there his happiness with the outcome is hardly guaranteed. The concluding story, "The Artist", features a woman in an asylum, who is painting a picture — apparently of the mysterious visitor with the "Time-Gifts" in each of the preceding stories. This story, then, serves mainly as a vehicle for commenting on each of the other stories, and for tying them up in a metafictional knot. The whole thing is effective and thought-provoking.

Impossible Encounters tends just a bit more towards being a jape, and is more strongly metafictional still. The shadow of Borges looms over this book. Each story features a character meeting an "impossible" other character — it might be God, or himself, or an alien, or the author. And the book, Impossible Encounters, appears as well in each story. They all satisfy, but there is perhaps a sense of cleverness, and a sense that the stories are a touch too cute, and a touch too much about each other, and not enough about character or metaphysics. But that is to quibble — they are fun to read, witty, and at times quite beautifully written.

Finally, Seven Touches of Music, published only last year, and with component stories still appearing in Interzone this year, is perhaps the most impressive of these three books. The seven stories all feature music, not surprisingly, usually as a catalyst for some strange message, or curious intrusion. The links between the stories are a bit subtler (mainly confined to a hint that two stories share a setting, and to the trademark appearance in the last story of the characters from the previous ones — something which occurs, one way or another, in all three of these books). Thus, I feel, the individual stories work somewhat better read separately. Perhaps most impressive is "The Puzzle", one of the better SF stories of 2001, which I have already mentioned. It's about a man who has retired from a job working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In his retirement, he organizes his life rather obsessively in patterns. Most striking is a series of paintings he is compelled to make while listening to music in the local park. The paintings seem to be parts of a puzzle — but how to find a meaning? Zivkovic has no answer, but his means of asking the question invites us to think about SETI, and about communication in general — it's a subtle, evocative, piece. "The Cat" deals engagingly with another elderly man, and his cat (complete with sly nod to Schrödinger) — and with another of many Zivkovician looks at the effect on our lives of contingency, and of knowledge of the effects of choices, past and future. Thus it resonates both with "The Watchmaker" from Time-Gifts, and with "The Waiting Room" in this collection — about an old woman apparently granted visions of the upcoming deaths of several people. "The Fire" is a striking story about a woman who dreams of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and who is perhaps vouchsafed a chance to read a lost volume — much as the dying scientist in "The Violinist" hears, in a beautiful passage on a violin, the secrets of the universe for which he has long searched. In "The Whisper" the music of Chopin seems to spark in an autistic child some insight into the deep structure of the universe, while in "The Violin-Maker", we perhaps learn something about the origin of the violin played in "The Violinist". In all these stories, the gift of secret knowledge is ambiguous, in that it seems impossible to reliably transmit this knowledge to anyone else — perhaps this is the overriding theme to this collection. At any rate, the seven stories, separately and together, are again quite thought-provoking.

Zoran Živković is revealed here as one of the more interesting voices in contemporary SF. His fiction is at one level clearly informed by a knowledge of SF, but it remains separate from the main currents of the contemporary field. It is indeed worth your while to see what sort of work is coming from non-English Language practitioners, and how their stance, as it were, outside the US/UK/Canada/Australia "center" of the field (at least to our perceptions) affects their work.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Review: Jewel Box, by E. Lily Yu

Review: Jewel Box, by E. Lily Yu

by Rich Horton

E. Lily Yu made a splash from the start in the SF field, with "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" in 2011, though she had published a story in the Kenyon Review earlier, and she has continued to write outstanding stories, and strikingly original stories, in the decade plus since then. She published a beautiful novel, On Fragile Waves, in 2021. Her stories are varied in tone, setting, and subject matter, but they are always beautifully written, intensely interested in character and in morality -- personal morality, as in how to live a good life, and public morality: that is, one might say, justice, both economical and political. They do not hector, however, they simply demonstrate. More than that, they make the reader, or this reader, feel strongly -- anger, love, joy, hope, but not cynicism.

The book at hand is her first collection, published by Erewhon Books in 2023. It collects 22 stories, four of them original to the book, and a few more that many readers may have missed. It is an essential collection -- a strong representation of the work of one of the most interesting new writers in recent years. (Even so, she has published enough stories that she could readily assemble another collection.) The stories are a mixture of contemporary fiction (some which veer into what might be called magical realism), fantasy, and science fiction. If there is a single mode she repeats, it is variations on fairy tales, folk tales, or myths. (One story is a wild transformed almalgam of "Jack and the Beanstalk", "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", and Chaucer's "The Clerk's Tale", with a bit of "The White Cat" thrown in.)

There is not a story in this book that is not worth reading and rereading. The four new stories are of a piece with her earlier work. "The Cat's Tale" is perhaps the highlight: it's the wild almagam I mentioned: when Jackie goes to sell her mother's cow, a white cat buys it, and convinces Jackie to accompany her to confront an ogre: the abusive Lord Walter. It's inventive and amusing and pointed. "The Lion God and the Two Gates" is essentially a parable, about a judge who is reputed to be a good man -- but his goodness is shown as legalistic and supportive of the status quo -- and when he faces his judgement at the hands of the lion god, his sentence is appropriate. "Courtship Displays of the American Birder" is a sweet contemporary story about a substitute teacher getting the courage to upend his life and migrate to the home of a woman he met while birding. And "The Eve of the Planet of Ys" is SF (if not terribly plausible scientifically) about a woman's -- several women's -- efforts to make a liveable place underground as the two suns of Ys consume each other. Perhaps the science doesn't work, but the story makes emotional sense.

Rereading the other stories reinforced to me their virtues. The slyness, indeed subversiveness, of "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" still enchants and makes one think. The fierce satire, married with almost loving description of the foolish extravagances of the near-future ultra-rich, makes "Green Glass: A Love Story" both timely and timeless. A more hopeful near future is shown in "The Doing and Undoing of Jacob Mwangi", set in Kenya with a version of Universal Basic Income that has divided society into "Doers" and "Don'ts" -- those who live on UBI and those who work for something more. Jacob Mwangi is a Don't who is moved to became a Doer -- but who needs to find a way true to his own self. "The Wretched and the Beautiful" is a searing and scary portrayal of humanity's reaction to the arrival of alien refugees. "Three Variations of a Theme of Imperial Attire" is a very dark portrayal of the real story behind "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- the clothes, and the advice, the tailor provides are horrifying, and the results are terrifying. And "The Valley of Wounded Deer" is one of the most moving stories here, another story in the mode of fairy tale, about a Prince who ends up on the only survivor of her murderous grandmother, the Queen, and who emulates the ways of deer in attempting to escape her grandmother's plots. The ending is particularly powerful.

I've only mentioned a subset of the contents -- but the entire book, as I said, is excellent. Some stories are vicious, some are sweet, some are clever, some are hopeful, some despairing. All are beautiful. 

(Disclosure -- Lily is a respected colleague, someone with whom I correspond somewhat regularly, and meet occasionally at conventions. And she sent me this book. So calibrate my words as you choose -- but, honestly, you'll thank me after you read her!)

Monday, February 12, 2024

Review: Fifty-One Tales, by Lord Dunsany

Review: Fifty-One Tales, by Lord Dunsany

by Rich Horton

(This is my 1000th post at this blog!)

In Boston this past weekend I visited the Brattle Book Store, an antiquarian store a bit over a mile from the hotel. (It has an outdoor space for discounted books that was used for a scene in the film The Holdovers -- I didn't recognize it offhand but when Alexander Jablokov told me that it was obvious.) It's a very nice bookstore, three stories high, a huge selection. I came away with two things: an issue of Harper's from 1902, and this very slim book by Lord Dunsany.

I've written about Dunsany before -- so, very briefly: Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was born in London in 1878 but lived most of his life in his castle in Ireland -- his baronage was part of the Irish Peerage. He died in 1957. He wrote some 90 books, but is largely remembered for several books of fantasy short stories published between 1905 and 1916, for his novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, and for several books of "bar stories" told by one Joseph Jorkens. The early fantasy work has been tremendously influential, and a key strain of sword and sorcery is essentially Dunsanyesque, though one hears much less about his influence than the later influences of Tolkien, Howard, and Lovecraft. I believe Leigh Brackett in particular was working in a Dunsanyesque vein in her planetary romances. Dunsany was accomplished in many fields, in particular a brilliant player of chess. He was friends with Yeats, AE, Padraic Colum, and other prominent Irish writers. His niece Violet Pakenham, a writer herself, was the wife of the great novelist Anthony Powell and the brother of the notorious seventh Earl of Longford.

Fifty-One Tales was published in 1915 by the firm Elkin Mathews. My copy is part of the Third Edition, or "Third Thousand", no date given but I believe 1919. The frontispiece is a photograph of Dunsany in uniform (he served in the Army in the Second Boer War and the First World War, and in the English Home Guard in the Second World War) -- and the page is signed "Dunsany" -- probably a reproduction. In literary style it is of a piece with the fantasy stories he was writing at this time, but these pieces are much much shorter (and many of those stories were quite short.) They range from under 100 words to perhaps 750 words. They are largely melancholy, though occasionally rather droll, and most of them concern the scourge of modernity, the value of sincere art, the passing of humanity, and death. 

I found the book quite enjoyable, though it must be said his grumpiness and prejudice about any aspect of 20th century industry got pretty tiresome. The writing is beautiful if his style works for you, as it does for me: it is old-fashioned and ornate, and very well constructed. (I should note that his style evolved over time, and the Jorkens stories, for example, are told in a less mannered mode.) The mood is deeply melancholy for the most part, though modulated by considerable irony.

It might be best not to read too many stories at one go, though I did read it fairly quickly. Favorites include a short sequence about encounters with Death: "The Guest", about a despairing man eating a meal with a nonexistent guest (of whom he says "there is plenty for you to do in London"; "Death and Odysseus"; and "Death and the Orange". I would add to that set "Charon", in which the ferryman, after years of idleness finally conducts one more shade across the Styx, who tells him "I am the last". "A Moral Little Tale" casts a cynical eye on the censoriousness of a Puritan. "The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde" shows what happens when a strident politician and a demi-mondaine arrive at the gates of Heaven at the same time.  "How the Enemy Came to Thlünräna" tells of the defeat of the title city of wizards. "The Dream of King Karna-Vutra" is a meditation on the King's desire for his long dead wife. And "The True History of the Hare and the Tortoise" tells not just of the race between those two but of the mordant latter day result of that race.

These stories are minor Dunsany, and uneven, but at their best they do evoke a melancholy sense of deep time and of the impermanence of humanity and its works. The writing is effective, and sometimes lovely. I'd read, say, A Dreamer's Tales first -- but this is a nice work. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Review: Patternmaster, by Octavia E. Butler

Review: Patternmaster, by Octavia E. Butler

by Rich Horton

Patternmaster was Octavia Butler's first novel, published in 1976. It was the final novel chronologically (though first published of coure) in her Patternist series. I discovered Butler's work not too much later, and read several of her novels, borrowed from the library -- Kindred, and the other Patternist books: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay's Ark, and even the one she later disavowed, Survivor. And I thought they varied from very good (including Survivor) to brilliant. Her short fiction was also brilliant. But somehow I never got to Patternmaster, or if I did I forgot it. (Which as we will see, might not be improbable.)

Patternmaster was our book club choice for February this year. We often have the author call in to our sessions, but obviously we didn't have the option this time, as Butler died in 2006, only 59 years old, after a fall. But one of our members, Cliff Winnig, had her as an instructor when he attended Clarion, so he could offer some insight. I listened to the audio edition, narrated very well by Robin Miles, and also got a Kindle version.

It's set on Earth, centuries into a post-apocalyptic future (some of the details of this are covered in the other novels.) The rulers of the planet are telepathic humans called Patternists, who keep the non-telepathic Mutes as slaves. There are also dangerous mutated human/lion chimeras called Clayarks. The viewpoint character is Teray, who is rumored to be a son of Rayal, the Patternmaster. We meet Teray and his wife Iray as they leave their school to meet Joachim, a house master who has agreed to take Teray on as an apprentice. This is Teray's best chance to eventually have a House of his own. But Joachim is beholden to a more powerful Housemaster, Coransee, and when they visit Coransee he forces Joachim to sell him both Teray and Iray ... an act that is a deep betrayal by Joachim.

We realize quickly some of the organization of this Patternist culture -- Housemasters have complete rule of the house. Apprentices can have wives, but not Outsiders -- and Coransee will make Teray an Outsider -- which is to say a Patternist of lower status. Iray will become just one of Coransee's wives, available to any man in the house EXCEPT Teray. Teray also realizes that Coransee is a son of the Patternmaster -- and that Teray is his own full brother. Coransee's actions must have something to do with Rayal's growing weakness -- he is likely to die soon, and Coransee is scheming to become the next Patternmaster. 

During Teray's time working for Coransee -- as the overseer of his Mutes -- he learns that he is indeed Coransee's full brother, and that Coransee is stronger (telepathically) than he, and also does not trust Teray's claim that he has no interest in being Patternmaster. Coransee also takes Iray to his bed, and to Teray's chagrin, Iray comes to care for Coransee. Teray's position becomes more and more tenuous, especially after his efforts to improve the condition of the Mutes, who are subject to terrible abuse from Patternists in the household, lead him to meet an independent woman, Amber, who is a strong healer. It soon becomes clear that Teray must flee or directly confront Coransee -- and Teray does not feel strong enough for a confontration, so he and Amber ending up running away, trying to reach the Patternmaster's territory before Coransee catches them. The route is perilous, especially because it takes them through the territory of the Clayarks, who who carry a terrible disease and attack Patternists on sight. On their journey, Teray learns much from Amber, about his latent healing ability, about better ways to kill Clayarks, and about how to tread a strong and independent woman ... But in the end, everything comes down to the inevitable confrontation with Coransee.

I've made the plot seem pretty direct and simple -- and it really is. There are some nuances, to be sure -- Teray is clearly a better person than his brother -- more interested in fair treatment of slaves, more open to equitable relationships with women, at least vaguely interested in understanding the Clayarks better (they are, after all, intelligent creatures.) But all this is in the context of a truly awful culture, built on slavery, on strict gender roles, on a fiercely hierarchical ordering of society. Thus it's not at all clear that Teray, if he wins, will be a substantive improvement on his father or his brother. This is consistent with Butler's vision -- she was uncompromising on where the logic of her stories led, wholly aware that the five books of the Patternist series have led humanity into a terrible trap, and unwilling to construct a typical SF plot in which the hero magically saves the world by the end.

Alas, this is a first novel, and it shows. It's not nearly as subtle as Butler's later books, nor as well written. There are promising ideas that are dropped -- such as one curious encounter between Teray and a Clayark, which raises questions that Butler doesn't choose to answer. Iray is a weak character -- perhaps on purpose but it's still diappointing. Amber is much better, mind you. The plot, especially towards the end, is devoid of surprise, and the battles are clichéd magical fights, as disappointing in there way as the wand wielding in the Harry Potter books. 

Butler got much better, almost immediately. The other Patternist books are better than Patternmaster (and it's clear she had a good idea of the whole series from the beginning.) The short stories are fantastic, Kindred is powerful indeed, and the Xenogenesis and Parable books are first-rate -- her reputation is wholly deserved. But this, her first novel, is ultimately very minor work. Definitely not a good place to start. There's potential here, mind you -- and if Butler had been interested in returning to this novel after completing the series and doing a from the ground up rewrite, it could have been much better. But by then, of course, she had other fish to fry. 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Review: Orbital, by Samantha Harvey

Review: Orbital, by Samantha Harvey

by Rich Horton

I discovered this novel based on recommendations from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg. And I owe them gratitude!  Samantha Harvey is a British writer who has gained considerable admiration for her previous novels -- all of which I confess I was unaware. Orbital, published just a couple of months ago in the UK and in December in the US, is her fifth novel. And it is glorious -- one of the most sheerly beautiful novels I've read in recent years.

It's set on a space station -- indeed, the ISS, though in what seems a slightly alternative history, or perhaps a slightly aspirational near future. The ISS is nearing its end of life (scheduled for 2031), but there is finally a new expedition to the Moon, and plans for sending people to Mars. But this novel, set simultaneously with the trip to the Moon, covers one day -- sixteen orbits of the Earth -- on the space station. There are six astronauts aboard -- or, I should say, four astronauts and two cosmonauts. Shaun is from the US, Chie from Japan, Nell from the UK, Pietro from Italy, and Roman and Anton from Russia.

In simplest terms, this is just a day in the life, for all six characters. A look at their daily routine, their interactions with each other, the work they do, what the station is like, what they see looking down on Earth. There is little or no drama on the station. But on Earth there is a super typhoon gathering strength, heading for the Philippines -- where Shaun and his wife had befriended a family now threatened. On the way to the Moon are the first astronauts to land there since 1972. And Chie's mother has just died. Roman is worrying about his marriage, which is on the verge of collapse. Nell is happily enough married to an Irish farmer, but at the same time aware that if she were asked to go to Mars she would accept. Pietro thinks about his daughter, and Anton about his heroes such as Sergei Krikalev, the cosmonaut who was the last man on Mir and one of the first on the ISS.

We see Chie thinking about her mother, who miraculously survived the bombing of Hiroshima. We see Roman talking on the radio to ham operators all over the world. Shaun thinks about the postcard he has from his wife -- a reproduction of Velazquez' great painting Las Meninas, which was discussed in the class in which they met, and which is further discussed powerfully here. We see visions of the Earth passing underneath them, over and over, the whole world, piece by piece in the 16 orbits. We hear of the progress of the Moon mission. We learn about the histories of each of the station's residents. And again and again there are astonishingly lyrical passages -- just some of the most powerful prose I've read -- about many things -- the fragility of the Earth, the promise of Mars, the beauty of humans, our aspirations, our failures. One of the highlights -- just a wonderful sequence -- is a meditation on what aliens might think of the golden record on Voyager 1 -- "Would they ever infer that over forty thousand years before in a solar system unknown a woman was rigged to an EEG and her thoughts recorded?" "Could they see into a human's mind? Could they know she was a woman in love?" "In five billion years when the earth is long dead, it'll be a love song that outlives spent suns."

I'll warn you -- there's no real plot here. But what does that matter? This short novel is ecstatic, lovely, hopeful, despairing but believing, honest, loving, real. The best tears are tears of awe, and I shed those. What a book! What a triumph! 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

by Rich Horton

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves appeared back in 2013, and I bought a copy right away. But in our family, Karen Joy Fowler's books go first to my wife. (She is the only writer we both read everything by.) So she read it, and before I could start it, we had lent it to a friend. And, as happens sometimes, the book never came back! I'm sure if I had asked, it would have, but I was in my usual schedule crush, with Locus reviews and all, so the book sort of went on the back burner -- and it only just came off. I went ahead and got the audio version and listened to it.

And, boy, it was worth reading. Was it better now than then? Probably didn't make a difference. I will say that the narration, by Orlagh Cassidy, was very well done. I've been a Karen Joy Fowler fan since her stories began appearing in Asimov's in 1985, and this is one of her very best books.

Let me pause here to make a remark about the ISFDB's page for Fowler. It breaks up her novels to SF and Non Genre. Now, the thing with Fowler is that much of her short fiction -- the bulk of it, I'd say -- is pretty unambiguously SF or Fantasy. (And I've reprinted a few of her stories in my anthologies.) But all her novels are in some way or another ambiguous as to genre. But a couple are definitely non-SF, though with some slant ties to the field -- for example, The Jane Austen Book Club is not SF, but one of its characters is an SF fan. And We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is, to my mind, definitely not SF, though the way in which it explores our relationships with non-human characters who have some degree of intelligence at least puts it in conversation with the genre. Nonetheless, it's not SF -- but the ISFDB has it listed as SF. And they have Sister Noon, which definitely dances on the Fantasy/Mainstream border, with some features that strike me as surely fantastical -- but it is listed as Non Genre. In the final analysis, none of this really matters, but it is a bit odd.

The novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke. She is telling the story from much later than the main action (essentially at the time of writing, in 2012 or so.) She tells the reader (addressed often as you) that she was a great talker when she was young. But she is going to skip the beginning of her story and start at the middle. (Which is advice her father gave her, frustrated by her loquaciousness.) So we are taken to the University of California at Davis, where Rose is attempting to be a permanent student. She's quiet now, and isolated from her peers. And then she gets in the middle of a scene started by Harlow, another student, who is breaking up with her boyfriend -- violently. And somehow Rose ends up with Harlow in jail. And after they are released, Harlow shows up at Rose's place. Meanwhile we are getting hints of Rose's past -- parents from who she seems somewhat estranged, and a brother who ran away from home a decade or so before -- and who may have tried to see her in Davis. There's a visit to her family back in Indiana, where the night in jail -- and the subject of her brother -- are carefully ignored. Soon she's back in Davis, having lost a suitcase that held her mother's journals, and with Harlow still luring her into drunken nights out and such ...

But now it's time to drop the other shoe, the one about her missing sister. So Rose takes us back to 1979, when she was five. And we learn -- though most of us already knew because the book's publicity revealed everything! -- that her sister Fern is a chimpanzee. And that she and Rose were raised together from infancy. Her father is a psychologist, and Fern (and Rose) are his grand experiment. So the two of them grew up inseparable, amidst a host of graduate students. And there were very close -- until a terrible time when Rose was five, when she was sent to her grandparents for a few weeks, and when she got back, Fern was gone.

There is more going on than just the story of a girl raised with a chimp. There's her lonely time after Fern leaves, when she goes to school and is called Monkey Girl and is over time pressured to silence, and left friendless. And there's her brother Lowell, who loved Fern too, and who was desperately hurt when she was taken away -- and who eventually runs away. And her father becomes a hopeless alcoholic, her mother descends into deep depression. There are mysteries -- what is Lowell doing? Why did Fern have to leave? What will Rose do with her life? The narrative returns to Davis, and more wild adventures with Harlow and other inhabitants of her apartment building including its eccentric supervisor (who, like most men it seems, is instantly smitten with Harlow) and her roommates, and of course Madame Defarge, an antique ventriloquist doll who was in the wrong suitcase the airplane sent Rose.

I don't need to tell more of the story. My telling makes it seem potentially terribly depressing, and it's not that at all. The narrative voice is snarky and energetic, and the book is sometimes quite funny and always involving. Yet it is moving and, really, heartbreaking. Lowell's anger, and Rose's fear and guilt and loneliness, and their parents different ways of retreat, are depicted precisely. It's very intelligent, and very engaged -- it has a point to make, and makes it compellingly, about humans and animals and our cruel relationship to them. The characters all live -- certainly Rose and Lowell and Fern jump off the page. (Fern, of course, is a great jumper, or at least climber!) The revelations are all believable and wrenching. Rose is a girl who has lost both her sister and brother, though neither is dead, and it's about her love, her loneliness -- and an eventual accomodation of sorts. 

The structure is wonderful too -- it's a master class in controlling narrative by means of controlling time. It's not radically nonlinear, but it's cleverly nonlinear. The prose is excellent -- Fowler's control of voice is beautiful, her images are sharp and never cliched. And the reader learns a lot, too -- while having fun! It's one of Fowler's best books, which makes it a very good book indeed.