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 (, 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.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Two Linked Novels by Robert Silverberg: Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992

Two Linked Novels by Robert Silverberg: Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992

a review by Rich Horton

I have been trying to finish reading all of Robert Silverberg's "early period" novels. This may seem a silly quest, for after all Robert Silveberg is celebrated as a writer whose early career was marked by extreme prolificity more than by particularly strong work. And I don't deny this at all! Still, I'll say that he learned to write skillfully and professionally very quickly, his early novels, while none of them are of truly lasting value, are mostly quite readable, and often engage with worthwhile and interesting ideas. 

Famously, Silverberg "retired" from science fiction around 1960, and turned to writing mostly popular science and history -- and doing so quite well. But around 1963, Frederik Pohl, editor of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow, lured him back, urging him to write more ambitious fiction. Silverberg quickly produced some exceptional short fiction, and by 1967 he was also publishing exceptional novels. 

There's a curious interregnum there, however -- what about those novels that appeared between 1961 and 1967? Some may have been -- some certainly were -- novels already in the pipeline, or novels based on already published short work. And there were a few YA novels. But one at least stands out as neither of these -- Regan's Planet, from 1964. Silverberg states in his introduction to the 1982 reprint of World's Fair, 1992, that he wrote it in 1963. Clearly he was not "fully" retired from SF -- but does this novel stand with his best later work? No. 

Anyway, I feel like I should call it a transitional work of sorts. It's well written, in a very professional fashion. But it is not as ambitious as most of his post 1967 novels. It's not in any sense experimental. And, it's never been reprinted -- it's only publication was a 1964 paperback.

For all that, Silverberg did produce a sequel -- the other book under review here, World's Fair, 1992, which appeared in hardcover from Follet in 1970. It was marketed as a YA novel, but it did get a reprint, from Ace Books in 1982. During the late '70s and early '80s, several of Silverberg's early novels were reprinted by Ace, sometimes in omnibus form, and with couple of different book designs. These featured genial introductions in which Silverberg explained the genesis of the novels and admitted that they weren't up to the quality of his later work but were, in his view, worth resurrection. This edition of World's Fair, 1992, doesn't really seem to be part of that series of reprints -- the novel is a later work, for one thing, and the book presentation is much different. But it does have a genial introduction, discussing the writing of each novel, and, most importantly, clearing up some confusion. Apparently -- and, to my mind, not surprisingly -- many readers assumed that World's Fair, 1992, was simply a retitling of Regan's Planet. (This claim even ended up in some bibliographies.) It was a somewhat plausible claim for a couple of reasons -- one, that World's Fair, 1992 is a thoroughly reasonable title for Regan's Planet; and two, that neither the paperback edition of Regan's Planet nor the original hardcover of World's Fair, 1992 were readily available to check. Instead, World's Fair, 1992 is a YA novel, set during the period of Regan's World's Fair. (Regan's Planet ends just as the Fair begins.)

Regan's Planet is centered around Claude Regan, the head of Global Factors Inc, which by 1990 has become probably the most powerful corporation in the US, having bought up a lot of companies during the Panic of '76. Regan himself, only 35, took over the corporation years later in a power play in which he ousted his uncle. And suddenly he is summoned by the President, who asks him to take over the running of the planned 1992 World's Fair in the US, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. It's 1990 -- so Regan has only two years, and a site hasn't even been selected.

The bulk of the novel follows Regan's efforts to stage the Fair. His biggest innovation is his choice of a site -- instead of choosing one of the many US cities angling for the job, he decides to have it in space. He will have a large satellite built, 50,000 miles* up, and also build a fleet of spaceships to shuttle visitors back and forth. In this depiction, the biggest problems aren't engineering -- he hires a Brazilian firm to build the satellite, for example, and they seem to slap it together in no time. His biggest problems are financial, and the novel shows him making some desperate maneuvers, which risk bankrupting Global Factors. He also has to fight off an internal takeover attempt by people unhappy with the financial chicanery he's trying. 

Other aspects of the novel include a depiction of a much changed international political order. The US and the USSR are still important, but clearly on a downward slide, with countries like Nigeria, China, and Brazil becoming the new world powers. The book attempts to portray the other countries in a positive manner, but there is some stereotyping (and one cringey sideways reference to South Africa.) There is essentially only one female character, Regan's wife, and their marriage is displayed as quite toxic. 

The plot, besides the financial aspects, turns on the difficulty of attracting enough visitors to pay off the debts Regan incurred to set up the space station. There is a lot of reluctance, partially due to the cost of the trip, and partially due to fears after some apparently spurious threats to attack the station surface. But Regan comes up with a spectacular, if icky, solution -- there are colonies on Mars, and very recently men have discovered a few living "Old Martians" -- the indigenous inhabitants, a dying race. Regan decides to build a representative Old Martian cave on the station, and invites a few of them to come and live in the cave for a year. And if they're not interested? ... well, I'll leave that for the reader to see.

It's slickly written, and a quick read, and there are some interesting aspects, and a moral conundrum (well, not THAT much of a conundrum!) and a decision for Regan to make at the end. I thought the science and engineering aspects were brushed over a bit -- which is to say, I was not convinced that the space station could be built in that time and be suitable for so many visitors, nor was I convinced by the Mars colonies or especially the Old Martians (who seem very similar to those in the otherwise unrelated middle grade novel Lost Race of Mars). Regan himself is not a very inspiring character, though his eventual fate suggests a better path for him. And, of course, the future history up until 1992 bears little resemblance to real history -- indeed, the book was written a few months before JFK was assassinated, so it was already obviously out of date when published in 1964. But you can't blame the author for that! In the final analysis, it's a pretty minor book, more evidence of Silverberg's professionalism but no real evidence of his ability to treat deeper themes that was soon to show up in his novels.

A little bit to my surprise, I liked World's Fair, 1992 rather more than Regan's Planet. The protagonist is Bill Hastings, a high school senior interested in xenobiology who won an essay contest to spend a year on the World's Fair satellite. His essay concerned the possibility of life on Pluto, and while on the satellite, he will be part of the team maintaining the exhibit of the Old Martians. 

Bill soon realizes that most of the other young people working at the Fair got their positions due to their families' wealth or influence, and he's rooming with a couple of wealthy young men, though they seem decent enough. He's also met (literally) a pretty girl of about his age, who ran into him as he was trying to find his way after arriving. This is Emily Blackman, the daughter of a Senator, and she seems to be a fairly, well, bitchy young woman. As Bill's roommates warn him -- one of them is her cousin, and the other also knows her socially.

Work in the Mars Pavilion turns about to be pretty interesting. Seven scientists are using the opportunity to study the Old Martians as extensively as they can. Bill is adopted as a gofer, but also as a bright young student who they all want to recruit to their branch of xenobiology. Over time Bill seems to make a slight connection with the six Old Martians, who remain stoic and not terribly interested in anything outside their own situation. Bill also realizes that the scientists are all, to one degree or another, appalled with the decision to uproot the six Martians and bring them to the Fair. Bill also has a chance to spend some time with Emily, and he starts to feel attracted to her, and to feel that she is attracted to him. But the Fair in general isn't doing so well -- after an early rush of interest, attendance has fallen drastically. There is a risk that the Fair will have to close early. (This is clearly a change from the implied situation at the end of Regan's Planet, but to be fair, that novel did end only as the Fair was starting.)

But Claude Regan has a plan. (He always has a plan.) His company happens to have magically developed, in the nick of time, a nuclear-powered spaceship that can get to Pluto in only a couple of weeks. He has sent an unmanned probe there, which has found evidence of life -- life resembling the sort of life Bill Hastings has speculated Pluto might feature. So now he wants to send a manned expedition, in the hopes that they can grab some samples of Plutonian life and open a Pluto Pavilion, to attract more visitors. And -- he wants Bill Hastings to be on the expedition, to take advantage of his having, sort of, predicted all this.

Well -- we can guess the outline of the resolution. Will the expedition find samples of life on Pluto? Will there be some adventure, even some danger, making Bill a hero? Will the expedition over all be a success, and save the fair? Will the notoriety gain Bill a foothold on the xenobiology career he wants? Will this raise Bill's status with Emily enough to make his dreams come true?

The answers to these questions are smoothly revealed, and really they make a lot of sense in the context of the novel. Is a lot of it a bit silly? Sure -- like the convenient appearance of frankly unbelievable two week travel times to Pluto. But I took a lot of this in stride, as consistent with a lot of SF shortcuts, particularly in YA novels (but adult novels too.) The emotional core of it all pretty much works -- Bill's interest in xenobiology, his worries about Emily's vastly different social status, the attitudes of the scientists to their morally queasy study of the Old Martians, and to the potentially similarly queasy issues raised by the discovery of the Plutonians. It's a smooth read, of course, and interesting even though implausible, and I liked it. A reprint of both Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992 in an omnibus edition would be kind of neat, though I daresay the audience for it wouldn't be all that huge.

*The orbit is stated to be "fixed" over the United States at 50,000 miles, but that really makes no sense (and the fuel costs of maintaining position over the US (not a true "orbit") would be, er, astronomical.) A geosynchronous orbit (at a radius of some 26,200 miles from the center of the Earth) would be more logical, even though it would not always be over the US.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Review: Spear, by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear, by Nicola Griffith

by Rich Horton

Nicola Griffith is the author of a great many excellent novels -- SF, crime, contempoary -- but she has made her biggest mark with two remarkable historical novels, Hild (2013) and Menewood (2023). These concern the life of the 7th Century Saint Hilda of Whitby. (More books about Hild are planned.) While working on Menewood she took a break to write Spear, which appeared in 2022. It is set in Wales and England in the 6th Century -- thus not dissimilar in time frame to the Hild books. But it is different in another way -- it is an Arthurian story, and truly a fantasy, leaning entirely into the Arthurian mythos complete with magic. Yet it is her own take on Arthur -- Welsh-centered, reimagining the characters as diverse, differently abled, queer, polyamorous, but still entirely true to the (already wildly diverse) legendarium.

The viewpoint character is Peretur, a version of Percival. But this Percival is a woman, and queer. We meet her growing up with only her mother Elen, in a secluded valley in Wales. But she feels always that her fate is different -- she is drawn to an image of a lake. And as she grows close to adulthood, she feels a need to leave, and to head to Caer Leon, and the King, Artos, and his Companions.

She has acquired spears, and a sword, and has developed remarkable skill. She encounters some of the Companions, and establishes a reputation, but when she comes to Caer Leon, she encounters some resistance. But after further feats -- defeating some bandits, rehabilitating some and killing the worst, she returns, and begins to develop relationships -- with Cai, at first skeptical; with Llanza (Lancelot), a great warrior though lame in one leg; and especially with Nimuë, the sorceress. But Artos is still wary -- and the secrets of Peretur's birth begin to come clearer (even to her.)

The novel then rushes to its conclusion -- the quest for the Grail (which here is, quite beautifully, not the Grail but one of the treasures of the Tuath Dé.) This too involves a confrontation with her father, and a resolution of her relationship with her mother, and with Artos; and of Artos' relationship with Gwenhyfar and Llanza. 

This is a lovely book, and the reframing of the story of Arthur is throughout sensible and intriguing. Peretur herself is wonderfully portrayed, and her sexuality is frankly and honestly depicted, and seems natural in its context. (And honestly Griffith does great sex scenes.) As with Hild, the depiction of everyday life in historical Britain is remarkable. The prose is graceful and lyrical. The fight scenes are outstanding. The characters all come to life. If I had a complaint, it would be that the ending is a bit rushed, and at times comes off a bit convenient. But Spear remains a glorious contribution to the (huge!) array of Arthurian retellings -- and it makes us see Arthur and his fellows in a way both familiar and refrshingly new.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Review: Love's Shadow, by Ada Leverson

Review: Love's Shadow, by Ada Leverson

by Rich Horton

Looking for my next audiobook recently, I browsed a selection of free ones (mostly from Librivox), and this book seemed worth a try. The name of the author rang a very faint bell, and, hey, how wrong can you go for $0? And it came up aces. (I have, of course, since bought the physical book, or actually an omnibus of the entire trilogy for which this book is the first volume.) I should mention upfront the reader: Helen Taylor, who did an excellent job. (Librivox recordings can be a crapshoot sometimes, but this one is very good.)

Ada Leverson was born Ada Esther Beddington in 1862. She married Ernest Leverson, unwisely and against her father's wishes, at the age of 19, and had two children, one of whom died as an infant. The marriage was generally a disaster, and eventually her husband decamped to Canada. She began writing witty sketches in the early '90s, publishing them pseudonomously in places like Punch, Saturday Review, and (eventually) The Yellow Book. One sketch, a parody of Oscar Wilde's work, was praised by its subject, and the two became good friends. Wilde called Leverson "the Sphinx", a nickname that stuck with her.

Her six novels all appeared in the decade 1907-1916. Love's Shadow (1908) was her second novel, and it was followed by two more novels about the same people, Tenterhooks (1912) and Love at Second Sight (1916). The three together are known as The Little Ottleys, and have been generally available as an omnibus under that title since 1962.

I'm going to shamelessly steal the way Hyson Concepcion described these novels, because it's perfect: "at once frothy, angry, incisive, and hilarious." It ranges from brittle satire on the English upper class in the Edwardian period, to light romance, to laugh out loud sketches of various silly people, some harmless, some less so. It's a shortish, novel, at some 56,000 words, and presented in 39 short and snappy chapters.

The story essentially follows two threads. One concerns the marriage of Edith and Bruce Ottley, and the other concerns Edith's friend Hyacinth Verney and her romance with Cecil Reeve. The two threads intersect, of course. 

Hyacinth is an orphan, an heiress, and strikingly beautiful. So far she has had several suitors, none of whom have interested her much. But she seems a bit more attached to Cecil Reeve, perhaps because he seems unusual to her (though the other characters assure us he's a completely ordinay Englishman.) His main quirk is his fascination with Eugenia Raymond, a widow about ten years his senior, who clearly regards him as more or less a puppy. Partly at Eugenia's insistence, he eventually seriously courts Hyancinth and they marry -- but Hyacinth remains jealous. All this is nicely enough done but mostly a tad conventional.

The more engaging thread is about Edith and Bruce. Bruce works in the Foreign Office, and the couple have a son, Archie, who is about two. It's quickly clear that Bruce is a fool and a bore, and is unthinkingly abusive to his much more sensible wife. Edith has learned to maneuver him by suggesting the opposite of what she prefers, realizing that he'll insist on doing what she wants instead. But she can't get him to reliably go to work on time, or to perform his responsibilities, such as writing letters he has promised, or communicating with his parents, or managing the finances. All this seems at first merely the eccentrities of a rather dense young man, but before long it's clear that Bruce, without really much intention of being so, is a terrible husband.

Over time Bruce, while ignoring his FO duties, hatches a scheme to write a play that will, he is certain, make him a fortune. Then he decides to take a part in an amateur theatrical performance. He is a hypochondriac, to the point of eventually deciding that he is a hypochondriac -- in a hypochondriacal sense. He is often absent, and appears to either be philandering, or attempting to philander but failing because the objects of his attentions reject him. He accuses Edith of an affair with a strange friend of his named Raggett, whom he had thrust upon her. And of course he is a terrible spendthrift and the household is soon deeply in debt. All of this is portrayed with a savage but light touch by Leverson. (It is speculated that this marriage is based on Leverson's own unhappy marriage.)

Their are numerous gloriously funny set-pieces. One of my favorites concerns Bruce attempting to babysit Archie, who is a pretty convincing if slightly precocious two year old -- the sequence where Archie asks Bruce if parrots have pockets had me rolling in the aisles. Bruce's absurd pretensions about his acting ability, in the two tiny parts he is given (with three total lines) are hilarious. (Indeed, pretty much all of the Edith/Bruce conversations are, if uncomfortable at times, lovely to read.) Raggett's tics -- such as his adoption of the Legitimist position (arguing that the true King should be in the line of King Charles the Martyr) and his subsequent attempt to develop a sense of humour -- are great fun. The acerbic contributions of Hyacinth's companion Anne Yeo, who is evidently Lesbian and in love with Hyacinth, and who customarily wears a macintosh, a golf cap, and boots, are wonderful. Hyacinth's uncle and guardian, Sir Charles Cannon, is in another unhappy marriage, though in this case the primary fault lies with his wife. Lady Cannon is a pompous snob who is only too willing to give her unwanted advice to all and sundry. Cecil Reeve's obsession, Eugenia Raymond, is an eccentric 40-something widow, and her view of life is refreshing.

This is really a very enjoyable novel, sprightly yet at the core darkly portraying the place of women in society. As I noted above, there are two sequels, and I will be reading them soon.