Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Review: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish

Review: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish

by Rich Horton

This is one of the better known works of what might be called early proto-SF. And its author is one of the more interesting authors. She was born in 1623, the youngest child of Sir Thomas Lucas. They were a Royalist family. In 1644, she went into exile in France with William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle, and they married in 1645. He was 30 years her senior, and had five children by his previous marriage -- she never bore him any children, but the marriage seems to have been a loving and successful one. They returned to England after the Restoration, and William's title was elevated to Duke of Newcastle, so that Margeret Cavendish is known as the Duchess of Newcastle (or Newcastle-upon-Tyne). She died in 1673.

Margaret was a very prolific writer, on philosophical subjects and natural history. She also wrote some 20 plays, and several works of fiction, poems, a memoir, and a biography of her husband. The Blazing World -- full title The Description of a New World, called the Blazing World -- appeared in 1666, a companion to her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. She was the most significant woman writer of her time, though Aphra Behn, about 17 years her junior, was also a major contributor.

The Blazing World remains her most famous work. Partly this is because her philosophical works, and her natural history, have been superseded by later discoveries. The Blazing World itself, however, is to some extent a philosophical tract, and much of it concerns her ideas on politics, gender, and natural philosophy.

The story opens with a man kidnapping a woman of higher social status than him. She is not terribly excited about this, and the man flees with her to the North Pole -- and there learns that there is another world joined to his world at the pole. It is very cold, and he and his fellows die, but the young woman survives and is taken into this new world, which, we learn, is the Blazing World. She is transported by a sequence of the different intelligent creatures of this world to the home of the Emperor, who immediately makes her his Empress. 

Much of the rest of the novel concerns the Empress' investigations into the nature of this new world, and by extension, to the nature of natural science in general. She makes use of the investigations of the various peoples of the Blazing World, who each have different abilities -- so, she discusses with the Bear-men, Fox-men, Bird-men, Syrens, Fish-men, and so on, asking about different aspects of the world. Eventually she decides she needs a scribe, which must be a woman, and she ends up recruiting the Duchess of Newcastle, and there are further discussions, contrasting the politics and social organization of the Blazing World with the Duchess' home. (There is a fair amount of satire in this section.)  Cavendish's politics were certainly Royalist, and she advocates for a benevolent monarchy. She is not a radical about gender (for her period) but certainly an advocate for women's intellectual prowess. 

The book closes with a section in which the Empress desires to intervene from the Blazing World in favor of her home country, which is under attack. (This section seems to me to imply that she was not from our Earth, but a third separate world.) This bit reads a bit unfortunately to me -- in essence advocating for her country to conquer her entire world. There are also curious bits in which a plea is made to allow the Duchess' unproduced plays a theater -- in London -- in which they can be produced. This seemed a bit odd to me.

In the end this is a odd confection. It's wildly imaginative, and interest purely for that. It's not much of a novel, really -- the fictional part is a thin lattice on which to hang the imaginative and philosophical speculations. It's written -- not surprisingly -- in 17th Century prose, which is hard going at times, though I think some editorial attention to normalize spelling and to introduce more paragraph breaks would have helped. My edition is from Ian Randal Strock's Fantastic Books imprint -- but I confess I've decided to get a Penguin edition with some more editorial matter, and with a couple additional prose works of fiction, I'm glad I read this -- it's fascinating in its way, it's important in its way -- but I couldn't quite love it.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: Cold-Forged Flame, and Lightning in the Blood, by Marie Brennan

Review: Cold-Forged Flame, and Lightning in the Blood, by Marie Brennan

by Rich Horton

Marie Brennan has been publishing short SF and Fantasy (mostly Fantasy, I think) for a couple of decades, after winning the Asimov's Undergraduate Award back in 2003. (That's an award which spurred some excellent careers over time -- writers like Rich Larson, Marissa Lingen, Eric Choi, and Seth Dickinson are also among the past winners.) I've enjoyed a lot of her short fiction over the years, including the pieces that became her mosain novel Driftwood (2020), as well as "From the Editorial Pages of the Falchester Weekly Review" (a short story related to her popular Lady Trent novels) and “Vīs Dīlendī”. 

The novellas I review here were published by in 2016 and 2017. I got them from John O'Neill at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention a few weeks ago, a couple among a great many duplicates John had. (I too had a number of duplicates from other places, some of which made their way into John's hands.)

The two books concern Ree, whom we meet "coming into existence" as Cold-Forged Flame opens. She has no idea of her name, only a dim sense of her abilities (she is a warrior, for one thing) and of her character (suspicious, prickly) -- but also aware that she is bound to do what the nine people who have summoned her ask. After some debate, she learns what these people want: she must go and bring back a vial of blood from the cauldron of the Lhian. And, in exchange, they offer her her freedom -- and, but only after the fact, what knowledge they have of her ... history. To tell too much in advance would harm her, they suggest.

So she is rowed to a mysterious island in a nearby bay. And immediately presented with a series of challenges, in almost game-like mode. (For a moment I worried that this would be a story set in a game universe, but thankfully that's not the case.) She struggles to climb a dangerous cliff, and in the processes meets a man on a similar quest. Again her suspicions take over, but she eventually agrees to cooperate with this Aedet, as they work they were through more obstacles, finally finding the cave which holds the cauldron of Lhian.

The story turns, then, on a couple of things: Ree learning a bit of her true nature -- she is an archon (just as his Lhian) -- a person built of story; and on Aedet understanding, with Ree's help, just what he needs to ask for. (He is a revolutionary, opposing a repressive usurper in his home country.) And then Ree returns the vial to the people who summoned her -- with a similar lesson for them. And they grant her her freedom, as the promised (instead of returning her to the apeiron, where archons are sort of maintained until they are summoned) -- and she can begin to search for more fragments of her memory.

In Lightning in the Blood, we see Ree returning to Solaike, Aedet's home country. The revolution has been successful, the usurper deposed, and a new King installed. Ree quickly encounters a group of people -- the Korenat, travelers, essentially Romani-analogues -- who have been attacked by marauders. Once this group realizes Ree can be trusted, they beg for her help: they'd like permission to stay in Solaike, and of course the marauders are a threat to the whole country. Ree reluctantly helps -- she has some influence, as her friend Aedet is one of the "King's Wives", a ceremonial term for especially important advisors. And she also has learned that one of the group she has encountered is another archon. This man recognizes her as another archon -- and more to the point, he thinks she is an archon of the Korenat. But Ree cannot believe this -- and she has no thread of memory suggesting it might be true.

Much of the novella is taken up with some political maneuvering, involving both who will lead a group aimed at eliminating the marauding group, the Red Leopard, which is led by a General from the preceding regime. But another aspect is the fate of archons in Solaike. The usurper had outlawed them, and killed any he found. There is pressure on the new King to retain this policy -- archons are feared -- but also a realization that Ree, at least, had been of great help in the revolution.

More important is Ree's struggle to learn more of her true full nature. And, while she is wandering the woods during the expedition against the Red Leopard, she has a mysterious revelation. In the end, all the threads from this specific story are tied up neatly -- the future of archons in Solaike is clear, the Red Leopard are vanquished, and Ree has some more clarity as to her true nature -- and a there's a slingshot to the possibility of more stories in this world. 

Alas, however, no further stories about Ree have yet appeared, though clearly some were planned. There is a short story, "The City of the Tree", from Uncanny in 2020, that is set in the same world but does not feature Ree. These two novellas serve as an interesting setup. The first novella is pretty strong -- the second one doesn't work as well, but is a reasonable hinge to potential future stories about the same character. Perhaps we'll see some some day. Brennan's website, and the subtitle to the second novella ("A Book of the Varekai") suggest that the collective title for the series might be The Varekai.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Review: To the Resurrection Station, by Eleanor Arnason

Review: To the Resurrection Station, by Eleanor Arnason

by Rich Horton

Eleanor Arnason is one of my favorite writers, but until now I had really only read her short fiction. I love almost all her Hwarhath stories, perhaps most particularly "The Lovers", "The Actors", and "The Potter of Bones"; and also her Lydia Duluth stories, especially "Stellar Harvest". She has written many other excellent shorter works: very recently, "Mr. Catt"; early in her career, "The Warlord of Saturn's Moons"; and in between, stories like "Mammoths of the Great Plains", "My Husband Steinn", "The Grammarian's Five Daughters", "Kormak the Lucky", "The Scrivener", "Knapsack Poems", and many others.

You might think I'd have started in on her novels with the Hwarhath one, Ring of Swords; or with her Tiptree winner, A Woman of the Iron People; or with Daughter of the Bear King, also highly regarded. But a couple of weeks ago, with my grandkids staying with us (which is lovely but absolutely exhausting), I wanted something shorter and lighter, and picked up her second novel, To the Resurrection Station (1986). And I need to warn in advance -- I have a feeling my reading experience was reflected first by reading it in very small snippets in between getting up to calm a screaming toddler, and later by finishing it while suffering from what turned out to be Covid.

The story opens on the planet New Hope, which had been lightly colonized by humans a few centuries earlier. A young woman, Belinda Smith, has been summoned from New Harvard college to her uncle and guardian's place, Gorwing Keep. There she learns to her shock that she is not named Smith but Hernshaw -- and that she is a descendant of the Captain of the ship that brought humans to the planet. Also, that she is ALSO a descendant of one of the planet's natives. For New Hope has an indigenous population, though it should be said they are extremely human-like. Worse, native law requires that she marry one of them -- a man named Claud. Worse still, they soon realize that they each have lovers in the big city, Port Discovery, and that the lovers are the same person -- Belinda's roommate Marianne. 

This all seems like potentially a wacky comedy, but though it's lightly funny at times, and there's plenty of underlying satire, it's not really a comedy. Belinda and Claud mutually agree they don't want to marry, though they soon learn that Marianne herself is actually married to someone else. Strange things keep happening -- notably, Gorwing Keep turns out to contain a spaceship, which they twice use to escape potential death or prison. There are encounters with natives (their relatives) and with humans, including a crazy policeman. And they are accompanied by a robot who claims to be Godfrey Hernshaw -- Belinda's ancestor, the original Captain, who had his brain uploaded to the robot as he was dying. They decide to flee back to Earth, even though it is a ruined planet after war broke out between humans and robots. On Earth, the robot hopes to find one of the "resurrection stations", which can transplant brains back into android bodies. Belinda and Claud aren't sure what they want.

Earth, it turns out, or at least the ruins of New York City, is occupied by crazy robots, crazy uplifted rats, crazy humans, and poetry-loving dolphins. And the threesome from New Hope, soon joined by a rat they rescue, keep searching for the resurrection station, which apparently is in Brooklyn. But will that really solve their problems?

I found the novel a bit hard to get into for the first half or so (on New Hope.) I didn't find the natives or humans very interesting characters, for the most part, and the action seemed haphazard and often silly. This is explained, mind you, by a psi power Belinda seems to possess, but I didn't find that satisfying. Things get more interesting on Earth, especially in the final section of the novel, which is sometimes quite funny and even moving. The ending is -- I think on purpose -- rather unresolved (and possibly a sequel could have been written, though perhaps the themes of this book had been sufficiently examined.) The science and worldbuilding don't hold together much, but I don't think this was meant to be that kind of novel. On the whole, a lesser part of Arnason's ouevre, for sure. I probably wouldn't start here if I was planning to investigate Arnason -- read some of the stories I mentioned above! For myself, I should probably get to Ring of Swords next.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Hugo Nominee Review: The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

by Rich Horton

Counting my review of Ann Leckie's Translation State, which I wrote last year before Hugo nominations were made, this is the fourth of my series for 2024. I'm reading Witch King, by Martha Wells, right now, and then I'll proceed to John Scalzi's Starter Villain. But the intervals before those next reviews will be a bit longer -- for various reasons (such as two weeks looking after my grandkids!) I didn't get to the three previous reviews until I had finished all three books.

This is another first novel, but Vajra Chandrasekera has been publishing short fiction for about a decade. This novel has gotten a tremendous amount of praise -- as, really, have all the nominees, but to my mind, this novel has gotten a bit more notice than the others. And with good reason -- this is a very ambitious novel, and very well-written. It is trying to do a lot, and succeeding at a fair bit of what it tries.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Fetter. Fetter's mother tore his shadow from him at birth, and as a consequence, besides not casting a shadow, he is not tightly rooted to the ground: he will float into the air if he doesn't take care. His mother also teaches him to be an assassin, from an early age, and she prepares him to commit the Five Unforgivables, as defined by his absent father's theology -- for his father is a "saint", the Perfect and Kind. These crimes are matricide, heresy, killing of saints, patricide, and killing the Perfect and Kind. Nice family!

After this short introduction, we proceed to Fetter in adulthood. He has left his mother and moved to the city of Luriat. He has joined a group of the "unchosen" -- people who were passed over for the status of prophet or saint of a religion. Fetter qualifies, of course, due to his father being the Perfect and Kind, and we soon learn that his father's religion is gaining influence and that his father may come to Luriat some time in the relatively near future. Fetter also has a boyfriend, and some friends in the group of the Unchosen, but still seems to be drifting in life. 

And then there are the Bright Doors. These are doors in buildings all over Luriat -- any door might become a Bright Door if left shut long enough. Birght Doors can not ordinarily be opened -- and if you enter one's building from another doorway, you will see no evidence of it. For this reason many houses in the city don't really have doors. There is a city department that assigns people to monitor Bright Doors, and Fetter signs up for this.

Fetter's mother is dying, and she begins calling him, on an unconnected phone, and starts telling him stories about her past, her marriage, Fetter's father, and so on. These are very strange, and indeed they clearly bring the novel into the realm of magical realism. Meanwhile one of Fetter's Unchosen friends lures him into a sort of revolutionary group, one focussed at first on putting on a satirical play. And Fetter's father and his army of pilgrims come closer and closer.

It becomes clearer and clearer that the city of Luriat is a very unjust place, and also that the Perfect and Kind will not improve things. And we can see, more or less, the shape of the climax, though Chandrasekera surprises us in some ways. As I said, it's a very ambitious novel, and there is a lot to admire. But somehow for me it didn't quite land. There is a narrative trick at the closing section that, while it's clearly prepared for, didn't work for me. And the magical realist aspect, while quite cool, failed to convince, and I'm not sure it was needed. I didn't really get as involved in the social issues brought up by the novel -- there is a distancing aspect to some of it.

Perhaps this is nitpicking, perhaps I am not the right reader, or perhaps I should reread the book. It's clearly impressive, and a quick look at his upcomimg novel, Rakesfall, makes it seem potentially even more impressive. Even with my misgivings, this is a novel that may well have been on my nomination list had I read it in time. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

Hugo Nominee Review: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

by Rich Horton

In my series of Hugo Best Novel nominee reviews I'm dividing the authors into two camps: one is veteran writers with boatloads of Hugos and Hugo nominations already (Ann Leckie, Martha Wells, John Scalzi.) The other is new writers with no Hugos. Two of these writers obviously fit the category -- Emily Tesh and Vajra Chandrasekera -- in that they were nominated for their first novel. (Though Tesh has a World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.) But S. A. Chakraborty (as she bylined her first novels) is kind of in-between -- The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is her fourth novel, and she even has a Hugo nomination, in the Best Series category, for her first three novels, The Daevabad Trilogy. (For what it's worth, I really like that cover image, by Ivan Belikov.)

(Interestingly, all three of these "young" writers are past their twenties (or appear to be -- I don't know how old Tesh is, but she does say, in an interview I found, that she "taught Latin for many years", so I'm guessing she's over 30.) I think a lot of recent "new" writers have come to novels after a long time doing other work. Possibly that's one reason their first novels get award nominations -- they may be "new" writers but they have plenty of other experience. That said, best guess is all of this "young" triad are 45 or under, while all of the "old" triad in are in their mid to late 50s. Scalzi and Leckie, however, were in their 30s and 40s when their first novels appeared (and got Hugo nominations!) so this isn't a completely new trend. But all of this is just observation, unimportant to evaluating their work.)

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is the first in what appears to be destined to be a longish series. The first book resolves most of the key issues it raises -- and it doesn't cheat the reader in that sense -- but it sets the stage for what could be several further volumes. I'm guessing the collective title will still be The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, and I wonder if later editions of the novel will get a subtitle, much like Star Wars: A New Hope.

Amina al-Sirafi is a pirate in a fantastical 12th Century. She lives on the coast of the Arabian Sea (or so I think), and the action of the novel ranges from Western India to East Africa to Southern Arabia to various islands in the Indian Ocean. As the novel opens, she is living in retirement with her daughter Marjana, who is about 10. However, a rich woman disturbs her peace, insisting that Amina recover her granddaughter Dunya, who has apparently been kidnapped by a murderous but magically powerful Frank. Amina doesn't want anything to do with this job -- it will be very dangerous and will take her away from her beloved daughter. But the woman is able to essentially blackmail Amina -- and, besides, a teenage girl in peril is hard to abandon. (Especially when that girl turns out to be the daughter of one of Amina's former crewmates.)

So Amina begins to investigate, and soon realizes that Dunya's situation is more complicated than her grandmother has portrayed -- it seems that Dunya, a promising scholar, may have run away to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man. Nonetheless, Amina feels compelled to continue her quest, and the novel takes the form of a traditional caper story, beginning with reassembling Amina's old crew: her first mate, Tinbu; her navigator, Majed; and Dalila, a Christian woman and expert poisoner. (Eventually the cast of characters becomes quite diverse in terms of religion, gender, age, and sexuality.) In time she reunites as well with her husband, Marjana's father, who is a demon. 

The story is very exciting -- it's probably the most pure fun of the nominees I've read to date. The villain (the Frank) is truly a horrible murderer. There are fascinating monsters, a magical island, some well done comic scenes. It's also nicely framed, with Amina telling her story to a scribe, Jamal -- and who Jamal actually is eventually becomes an interesting and important point.

The book isn't perfect. My main issue is the prose, which is kind of a mixed bag. Voice is a very important component of prose, and the voices here (mainly Amina's but also Jamal's) are quite well captured -- a bit 21st Century to be sure but that's hard to avoid. They are lively and involving. The problem, though, is that it needed a pretty rigorous copy-editing step that it didn't seem to get. There are lots of words that don't mean what the story seems to think. I know lots of people don't care about prose, but I do, and errors of this sort just nag at me.

So -- a fun novel, worth reading. Would I have nominated it? Probably not, but I can see why people did, and it's not a bad nomination. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Hugo Nominee Review: Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

by Rich Horton

I'm going to be doing a review of each of the Hugo nominated novels over the next couple of weeks. I actually have already reviewed one of them, Ann Leckie's Translation State. For the most part these reviews will be somewhat short.

In recent years, quite a few Hugo nominations have gone to first novels, and this year there are two of those. One is Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh. Tesh is a British writer, and her previous publications, two linked novellas from, received lots of positive attention -- indeed, the first of these, Silver in the Wood (2019), won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Its sequel is Drowned Country (2020), and the two are collectively the Greenhallow duology. Alas, I have not read either. So, for me, Emily Tesh came out of nowhere with Some Desperate Glory -- but clearly she didn't, with two previous slim books that were well-received. That said, Some Desperate Glory is SF -- even, at some level, Space Opera -- and thus quite a contrast to her other work, which I understand is dark fantasy.

The novel opens on Gaea Station, a small space habitat in which live the remmants of humanity who survived the destruction of Earth. This small group has sworn revenge on the aliens who destroyed (as in blew to bits) the Earth -- a loose federation of sorts collectively called the Majo, comprising several different races and even one human-occupied planet, Chrysothemis. Gaea Station faces very long odds, though -- they have only relatively few small ships, plus the remnants of four dreadnoughts the engines of which power the station. Their society is also harsh and strict -- the children, all born without know their birth parents, undergo military training from the age of 7, and at 17 they are assigned to their long term roles, which might involved military responsibilities, station maintenance, or "Nursery". None of this ever seems pleasant, but it's even worse when we learn that the women assigned to Nursery are expected to bear children every couple of years for a couple of decades, and are required to submit to the attentions of any eligible man who wants them. (Some of this I deduced -- it's not all explained.)

The main character is Valkyr, called Kyr. In the rather YA-flavored opening section, we learn that she is (naturally) the bestest ever female soldier trainee, with only her slightly older brother Magnus having better scores than she. We see her as the leader of her cadre of 17 year old woman, just as they are ready for their assignments. We gather quickly that she is a rather unpleasant person. And we slowly realize that she's confused by a few things -- one is her older sister, Ursa, who betrayed Gaea years earlier by leaving for Chrysothemis. The other is her learning that her brother is queer, and in love with Avi, a very small and bratty young man who is a computer genius. And, finally, there is the matter of the Majo ship that is captured, and which contains an alien, one of the originating race of the Majo, the Majo Ze. And her world completely changes when she learns that Magnus has been sent to Chrysothemis on a secret mission to disrupt the ceremony at which the planet will receive a node of the Wisdom, a sort of supercomputer which makes decisions for the best of everyone in the Majo -- decisions like destroying Earth.  At the same time Kyr learns her assignment -- Nursery! Instead, she rebels and decides to steal a ship and head for Chrysothemis -- to take direct action against the Majo, as she feels she is best suited for, and also to save her brother from what seems like a suicide mission. 

This first section is at times hard to take. Part of it is that Kyr is an asshole -- which is the point, sort of, but also is overdone, and becomes contradicted in later sections. The other part is that a lot of the details about Gaea Station just don't hold together. The thing is -- partly -- that the next part, on Chrysothemis, is much better. And the story really becomes quite interesting. I'm not going to detail the rest of the plot at all, as there are spoilers aplenty in almost anything I could say. But in the end, this is a novel that frustrated me throughout -- there are some great ideas, some interesting moral questions, some cool science fictional notions. And at the same time, all along, there are annoying aspects: thin worldbuilding, implausible (or arbitrary) character development, a failure to fully interrogate some of the (truly worthwhile) moral questions, and occasional downright silliness. And, a whole lot of overegging the pudding in establishing the villainy of the central villains. (When will authors realize that bad people are still complex people, and bad situations are still usually mixed -- there is no reason to go back and check every single "villain box"!)

In the end, I have to come down somewhere in the middle. First, I'll say, the novel is on balance an enjoyable read, especially after the opening section. I'm glad I read it, and I'll try further things Emily Tesh writes. But set against that there are real flaws, and if they aren't quite fatal they are damaging. It modulated oddly from straight YA at the start, to a more adult novel in the middle, back to an overly convenient and very YA-ish ending. (I note, of course, that the very best YA fiction avoids this -- and much so-called "adult" fiction leans into it.) The prose is -- mostly just fine, but never special. (There are a few solecisms, but I admit I wondered if a couple of these were misreads by the reader of the audiobook I listened to.) Would I have nominated it for a Hugo? No. But am I happy to have read it? Yes. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: The Tusks of Extinction, by Ray Nayler

Review: The Tusks of Extinction, by Ray Nayler

by Rich Horton

First -- an apology to Ray Nayler. I read an advance copy of this way back in October -- and I dithered about writing up a review because I didn't want to post it until the book came out, in January. Then January came, and I couldn't find the print copy, and I got too lazy to look through the electronic copy I had (flipping back and forth is much harder on a Kindle than a physical book.) And now it's May -- but, hey, I did just do a major cleanup of my "office" and guess what? I found the physical copy! So here's a review -- later than optimal, but I hope it will push a few more people to read the book.

Ray Nayler's first novel, The Mountain in the Sea, has been extravagantly -- and deservedly -- praised. His short fiction to date has also been remarkable. Now comes a novella, from, The Tusks of Extinction. It's also a powerful book, and very much worth reading, if not, to me, quite as science fictionally scintillating as the novel.

The Tusks of Extinction opens with Damira tracking a blood trail to find a dead ammother -- and then goes back in her memory years to when she was working for a group trying to stop elephant poachers, and she had come on the remains of several murdered elephants. And, we are told, not long after, Damira was murdered herself by poachers. And quickly the other shoe drops -- Damira's mind, by some process, has been uploaded into a mammoth, as part of a project to restore mammoth populations using recovered DNA, and help from experts (such as Damira) inhabiting a mammoth body to teach them mammoth ways of life, or the best guess at that.

That's the big science fictional hook -- the familiar idea of "resurrecting" mammoths using DNA from frozen remains, enhanced by the concept of uploading human minds to some mammoths. The book follows three tracks -- Damira's experience, both her human life and her time as a mammoth, and that of a young Russian man dragooned into mammoth poaching, and then that of a man whose boyfriend bought a trip to see the mammoths on the newly established mammoth preserve -- and to hunt them. All three threads are interesting, and in sum truly wrenching. There is desperate violence, and human betrayal, and maybe a tiny thread of hope.

This is a first rate novella, and like much SF it is not really about its extrapolation, but about the present. And in that sense it is a powerful cry against our human predation of elephants (and by moral extension, many animals.) It shares with The Mountain in the Sea an interest in the minds of non-humans, and also a concern with the violence and environmental destruction caused by humans. 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Stories and Novels of T. L. Sherred

The Stories and Novels of T. L. Sherred

Thomas L. Sherred (1915-1985) was an autoworker, who began on the factory floor but ended up in the technical writing department. His politics were clearly on the left, and he often wrote about working men. Not surprisingly for an autoworker, he lived in Detroit, and his stories (and the novel Alien Island) were often set there. Most of these stories -- including Alien Island -- had a distinctly cynical edge to them. 

It was revealed, when his short-short "Bounty" appeared in Again, Dangerous Visions, that he had suffered a stroke in 1971 and was unable to continue writing. His last novel was a collaboration with Lloyd Biggle, Jr., an SF writer who also lived in the Detroit area. (Biggle was a professor at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, a Detroit suburb. My mother, also a Detroit native, was a graduate of Eastern Michigan (then Michigan Normal) and her time there intersected with Biggle's, though she never had a class with him.) After his stroke, Sherred lived until 1985, and was able, I assume, to see that final novel accepted for publication, though he died before it appeared.

Here is a look at his relatively small output -- at least, everything I could find: five SF stories, the two novels, and one mainstream story.

"E for Effort" (Astounding, May 1947)

This was Sherred's first sale and it remains by a very wide margin his best-known story, and (in my opinion) also his best story. It has been anthologized many times, notably in Groff Conklin's Big Book of Science Fiction (1950), in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952), in Damon Knight's A Century of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (1965), and, perhaps most importantly, in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIB (1973). The story is about 19,000 words long.

Ed Lefko, in Detroit for his father's funeral, stumbles across a showing of a very amateur-looking but impressively realistic historical movie. He asks the theater's proprietor for more information, and the man, Miguel Laviada, tells him that he has invented a machine that can take moving images of any place on Earth at any time in history. But Laviada can't figure out how to make money with it ... Lefko, a bit more unscrupulous, can, and they start out with blackmail (images of rich men fooling around.) Then they proceed to making grand historical movies -- by using actual footage. This is successful for a while, but their idealism takes over -- they realize that "any time in history" includes right now, and they start spying on the most powerful men in the world, and are disgusted by what they find. They decide that the best course to take is to find a way to make the technology ubiquitous, with the idea that universal surveillance will make war impossible. But ... well, the ending is logical and cynical and grimly honest. (Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" is another great Time Viewer novella which is clearly in conversation with "E for Effort".)

This is obviously not a typically Campbellian story, and for that reason there is a theory that the story was selected by Campbell's assistant while he was on vacation. I doubt that personally -- that's not something that Campbell would likely allow, and anyway, he published a lot more "anti-Campbellian" fiction than his critics credit, and he also chose to reprint the story in the Astounding Science Fiction Anthology.

"Cue for Quiet" (Space Science Fiction, May and July 1953)

Sherred's "Cue for Quiet" was serialized in these two issues of a fairly short-lived digest edited by Lester Del Reay. The combined story is about 28,000 words long. It's about a man who suddenly develops a curious power. He can stop machinery just by thinking about it. He begins by knocking out TVs and radios in reaction to his irritation at all the noise. He indulges himself ruining various annoying machines, but soon draws the attention of the police, and then the government. Could he possibly be used in war -- to destroy the opponent's machinery? But what will make him cooperate? And won't he be a target? Eventually he learns to safely destroy atomic bombs, and the story ends, a bit sadly, with the man hidden away on a desert island, living a lonely life while guarding the world from the prospect of nuclear war. It's not a great story, but a fairly decent effort, with a sort of grim common sense side to it that seems perhaps to be characteristic of Sherred.

"Eye for Iniquity" (Beyond, July 1953)

This story appeared in the first issue of Beyond Fantasy Fiction, a companion magazine to Galaxy that H. L. Gold started with the intention of doing something like what John W. Campbell did in Unknown -- publish fantasy in a style not dissimilar to that of the primary magazine. I like Beyond -- I have the entire run of 10 issues -- and "Eye for Iniquity" is a decent example of the sort of thing Gold liked. It's some 9,500 words long.

The narrator tells how, one day, he made a ten dollar bill -- by looking at another one and just creating a copy out of thin air. His family are struggling a bit to get by, and so of course he spends the bill -- and some more bills that he makes, and things go on fine for a while until the Internal Revenue Service and the Secret Service figure out that something funny is going on, and they track him down. He ends up cutting a deal with them -- as they can't prove he actually copied the bills -- there's no counterfeiting equipment or anything. So he agrees to stop doing it, with the proviso that if they ever catch him again he goes right to jail. And that's his story -- he ruefully admits he misses the extra money but knows he can't take the risk of making more. But there's a tiny, obvious in retrospect, little twist ... It's a nice story, minor but efficient, and rather more lighthearted than anything else Sherred wrote.

"Cure, Guaranteed" (Future, August 1954)

"Cure, Guaranteed" (13200 words) is a curious story for an SF magazine. It is marginally SF, but really it would have fit much more neatly in, say, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. A private investigator working for a Detroit area association of doctors looks into a guy promising to cure the common cold, expecting to find a quack as usual. But before long he realizes the guy is for real. But the doctors still want him shut down ... He comes up with a reason to do so eventually, a bit unrelated to medicine, but nicely enough revealed. An amusing enough piece, maybe a tad too long. Not really memorable, though.

Sherred's only collection, First Person, Peculiar (1972), comprises the above four stories. (And I have to say, that's a distinctly awful cover!)

"See for Yourself" (Escapade, June 1961)

This is the fourth and last of Sherred's stories to have a letter (in some form) followed by the word "for" as the start of the title. It's also the only non-SF story I know by him. Escapade was a "man's magazine", a sort of second-tier Playboy, and as with most of those magazines it featured a fair amount of fiction, and, it turns out, fiction of, often enough, some ambition.

"See for Yourself" (5500 words) is about Howard, a public relations man, whose job seems to be making sure his company's clients are happy. In this story he's entertaining Charley, a particularly unpleasant, but valuable, client, who is, it's soon clear, hoping to get lucky. Howard, after calling his wife to warn her he'll be late, takes Charley to a bar, and then starts calling his list of call girls, realizing that Charley will want him to play along too. And then it turns out Charley has found a woman by himself -- so Howard cancels one of the two women who'd agreed to come, and they head to a motel, and, well, things go as they might. And as the morning comes, Howard bundles Charley into his plane, sends the girls home in cabs, and goes home to his wife. And they have a pointed conversation. There's a bit of a twist here (that I guessed) and the talk with his wife is honest and moving and pretty well done. This is on the one hand the sort of story you might expect to find in a magazine like Escapade, but it's also quite a good one. This may be my second favorite Sherred story.

"Not Bach" (Outworlds, January 1972)

Outworlds was a very highly respected fanzine edited mostly by Bill Bowers, which ran from 1970 to 1998. It received six nominations for the Best Fanzine Hugo. It was a genzine, and I don't know how much fiction it published, but in the January 1972 issue it did feature this brief story (about 1200 words) by T. L. Sherred. 

It's really a pretty minor piece, about a time-travelling academic visiting, in the early 20th Century, a composer -- not named but easily identified as Victor Herbert -- and urging him to abandon his "serious" operas and write more "light" work like Babes in Toyland, presumably because in our day nobody thinks anything Herbert did in his more serious mode is worth remembering. There's not much substance or SFnal interest to the piece -- it seems more like Sherred indulging a little fantasy about a composer he admired. (Herbert does get a mention in another Sherred story, "Eye for Iniquity".)

"Bounty" (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

The dangerous vision in Sherred's story is pretty dangerous -- a private entity of some sort starts offering a bounty for killing anyone involved in armed robbery (or, presumably, other crimes.) This very short story quickly extrapolates the consequences, and it's either a very ugly story endorsing vigilant justice or a satire of that attitude -- but, if the latter, I think it a bit off the mark.

Alien Island (1970)

This is Sherred's only solo novel, from Ballantine Books in 1970. It is an odd bird, deeply cynical and ultimately utterly dark. It has never been reprinted, though it did have a German edition.

It's narrated by Dana Iverson, who works for the CIA. We learn quickly that Iverson's department is tasked with keeping track of UFO sightings and tamping down public interest in them. As the novel opens, Iverson is sent to Detroit to work at a bar at which a spaceship actually landed -- and a local machinist, and notorious drunk, wandered into the ship.

It's soon clear that the jig is up -- this spaceship won't be ignorable. The drunk, one Ken Jordan, returns in the spaceship shortly, and the aliens reveal themselves, specifically in the person of the Captain, an astonishingly beautiful woman named Lee Lukkari. Ken Jordan reveals that he has learned the alien language by having melded minds with Lee Lukkari. And Lee Lukkari, after describing the alien mission -- they are representatives of an interplanetary society called the Regan Group -- states that Ken Jordan will be the the Regan Group's ambassador to Earth.

This early part of the novel seems cynical but funny. However, once the Regan Group starts dealing with Earth, the various governments of Earth squabble over the spoils. Iverson infiltrates Ken Jordan's organization, but soon is conflicted. The story turns darker and darker, leading to a completely bleak conclusion -- a conclusion that I didn't really feel was quite earned. There are problems with pace, problems with tone, some weird character development, and dated sexual politics (though Sherred tries hard, especially with one particular trick he plays on the reader.)

Alien Main (1985) (with Lloyd Biggle, Jr.)

I confess that I have not yet read this book, though I have a copy. Apparently Sherred had some ideas for a sequel to Alien Island, set a couple of centuries after that book ended. Sherred died in April 1985, and the book was published in August, so it seems likely that Sherred engaged LIoyd Biggle to complete the novel some time before his death, and he probably knew about the sale of the novel (to Doubleday) before he died. Sherred did write, in a terribly sad foreword to the novel, "A few days before yesterday a structural defect permanently removed any desire or capability to write. The things of merit in this book belong to Lloyd Biggle. I'm very grateful for Lloyd's taking over to finish this book and it never would have been finished if he hadn't done all the work." It involves the alien civilization returning to Earth to investigate the disaster that is portrayed at the end of Alien Island. Reviews suggest it isn't an entirely successful novel, but not without aspects of interest, and with a somewhat more hopeful mood than the first novel. I don't know if that was in Sherred's original plans, or if Biggle, generally a more optimistic writer than Sherred, influenced that.

Steven Rowe pointed me to indexes of T. L. Sherred material at Kansas University, and according to that, Sherred had written at least 7 or so chapters of Alien Main prior to his stroke, and soon after the stroke, he asked Laurence M. Janifer to collaborate on finishing the novel. It seems that they finished it and submitted it to Ballantine, but apparently it was not accepted. (There is mention of them working on editorial comments, and also of a delay due to the very early death of Steve Treibich, with whom Janifer had collaborated on three Ace Doubles.) It would be interesting to compare Janifer's work with Biggle's.

That material also refers to a story written in 1960 or so called "X for Breakfast", a "science-fiction romance". It must not have sold. Amusingly, Robert Silverberg mentioned that Randall Garrett had suggested jokingly that Sherred should write a story with that title. I have no idea if Sherred was responding to Garrett, or if the titles were parallel inventions. I would love to see the Sherred story.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Review: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope

Review: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope

by Rich Horton

I didn't really mean to read another Trollope novel so soon, but I bought a few of his books at a used bookstore, and I opened Can You Forgive Her? and before long I was hooked. This novel, from 1864/1865, was the first of the Palliser (or Parliamentary) novels to be written. 

It is a very long novel, over 800 pages. Supposedly Stephen King wrote, in his book on writing, that it should have been called Can You Even Finish It?, which seems a bit rich coming from a guy who wrote at least two novels of more than 1100 pages. (It's also by no means Trollope's longest novel -- I believe at least The Way We Live Now and possibly The Last Chronicle of Barset are longer.) I will say that my edition maintained the original two volume structure and pagination (bound in a single volume, though) and I was very confused when I got about 200 pages in, looked at the page number at the end of the book and saw 416 or so, but realized I clearly wasn't close to halfway through. And, to be fair to critics of its length, while I enjoyed this book, it's probably my least favorite of the Trollope novels I've read to date. It is fair to say that not much really happens in the book relative to its length. But Trollope being Trollope, it remains absorbing.

It is built around two very carefully paralleled stories of women torn between two men. The main character -- the one we must try to forgive -- is Alice Vavasor, a woman of 24, of a decent but declining county family, with (from her mother's side) a modest fortune, some £10,000. As the novel opens, she is engaged to a very fine and honest, but perhaps rather boring, man, John Grey. She had previously been engaged to her first cousin, George Vavasor, a more ambitious and perhaps interesting man than John Grey, but also a less trustworthy man, and she had broken the engagement when he went through a "wild period". (It takes a long time, but we do finally learn that he had kept a mistress, whom he left in terrible straits when he was finished with her.) Her cousin Kate, George's brother, believes George is better suited as a husband for Alice, partly because George's new interest -- he wants to stand for Parliament -- is something that interests Alice; but also because Kate wants to see her brother made financially sound, and Alice's money might do that.

In parallel is the story of Lady Glencora, a very wealthy somewhat distant connection of Alice, who had wanted to marry a dissolute but very handsome member of an aristocratic family, Burgo Fitzgerald. But Glencora's family thought Burgo would be a terrible husband, and they put pressure on her her to break off with Burgo and instead marry Plantagent Palliser, the son of the Duke of Omnium. Plantagenet is a highly regarded MP, in line to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he is also somewhat boring (and quite hard working) and there are no real sparks between he and Glencora.

So -- that's the parallel: two well off young women, either married to or engaged to rather staid men, but still attracted to their previous, more exciting but less moral and less dependable, lovers. The parallels aren't exact -- Alice is more intelligent, and more strictly moral, than Glencora, and in fact she had refused to assist Glencora when she was tempted to elope with Burgo. But both women are much importuned by the pressure that older people (mostly women) put on them to do the expected thing. And very quickly, Alice shockingly breaks off her engagement to John Grey. Soon, as well, Glencora is driven to despair by Mr. Palliser's coldness, and by his apparent tendency to blame her for not getting pregnant with an heir. (The contemporary reader can't help but wonder if Mr. Palliser's habit of staying up late working instead of sleeping with his wife might have some effect on their chances at pregnancy!) Burgo's scheming Aunt cooks up a plan to rescue Burgo -- who is nearly ruined financially -- by having him run away with Lady Glencora. And eventually Alice decides to accept George's renewed offer of marriage, but soon realizes she does not love him, and out of guilt offers to contribute her fortune to aid George's Parliamentary ambitions, while refusing to set a date for their actual marriage.

There is a third thread about a woman choosing between two men, this one played for comic relief. It involves Alice's Aunt Greenow, a very rich widow, who is being courted by a wealthy but somewhat crude farmer, and by an impoverished ex-Navy man. In a way all three of these threads highlight aspects of an important question that informs almost any love story, or marriage story, from that era: what can a woman do with her life? And her money? Professions were not open to women, nor was politics, and most women lost control of any money they did have upon marriage. Trollope does not exactly buck against this social rule, but he does acknowledge it, and here we have three women, all somewhat wealthy.* One (Lady Glencora) is not really interested in any non-traditional female role: she just wants her husband to show affection, and she wants to show off her wit and sense of fun in social circles, and I suppose she wants children. Aunt Greenow wants to be in control of her money, and her husband -- and she is savvy enough to know how to do this. And Alice -- in some ways Alice is the sadder case, because she really does have suppressed ambitions to take a more active role in matters of state -- to at least be her husband's true partner; and by the end it's not clear she will quite be able to do that. (It is fair to say that Trollope shows her eagerly discussing matters like the price of sugar with her husband, but it also shows her telling herself that due to her earlier mistakes she realizes she must let her husband be the master in everything.)

I won't tell how things work out, though I don't think many readers will be surprised at the resolution. There is a certain amount of actual melodrama, it turns out. And a fair amount of Trollope's lightly ironical moralizing. As I said, it's not my favorite Trollope novel, but I still quite liked it. I'll be reading more and more Trollope, no doubt -- though the interval before I read the next book (probably Doctor Thorne) will probably be a bit longer. 

*(Obviously the prospects of women who were in addition to being disbarred from professional ambitions but who also had no money were even worse, and though in this novel Trollope does not much deal with that, he does touch on it in his other novels.)

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review: The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn, by Algis Budrys

Review: The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn, by Algis Budrys

by Rich Horton

Algis Budrys only wrote eight novels in a writing career that spanned over 40 years. Five appeared between 1954 and 1960 (with a revised version of the first appearing in 1961). Michaelmas came out in 1977. Hard Landing in 1993. And what of the interval between 1961 and 1977? A very strange novel, serialized in If in 1967 as "The Iron Thorn", published in paperback that year as The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn. (Later reissues have been titled just The Iron Thorn, implying that that was Budrys' preferred title, but I confess a fondness for the longer title under which I first read the novel.)

I read the paperback many years ago, and enjoyed it, but my memory of details was lacking. So I have just reread it in the serial version. This appeared in four parts, January through April of 1967. Four parts is a long serial, usually, but in fact these parts are fairly short, and the complete serial runs about about 50,000 words, by my rough estimate. The book version says "A shorter version of this novel appeared in If magazine", and indeed by my best estimate, the book is slightly longer, at perhaps 55,000 words. A cursory comparison of the texts does show slight cuts in the magazine version -- no missing scenes, but a sentence here, a clause there. And a couple of word choice changes -- for example, in the magazine, the Amsirs call humans "damp things" but in the book it's "wet devils". The overall substance of the novel is essentially the same, though I will say I think the book version is slightly better. I don't know if the changes were cuts editor Frederik Pohl made, or the result of revisions Budrys made before book publication.

The story concerns a young man named, variously, Honor White Jackson, Honor Secon Black Jackson, and Honor Red Jackson. Jackson is a member of a small society of humans living in a strange environment, consisting of a small fairly fertile valley surrounded by desert -- and with the atmosphere unbreathable outside their home. The "Iron Thorn" is a tower in the middle of their valley. "Honors" are a privileged caste, who venture out in to the desert to hunt the strange human-sized flying creatures called Amsirs. And the opening extended scene shows Honor White Jackson on his first Amsir hunt, or "hon". The hunt is successful, of course, and Jackson returns, ready for his welcome to the full privileges of an Honor (including the name of "Black" -- with "Secon" meaning that he is the second in his familty to become a Honor.) But Jackson is disturbed, for he has learned that Amsirs can talk -- there are not dumb animals, but intelligent. And he soon realizes that the more intelligent Honors, including the "Eld" who rules the society, are aware of this, but unwilling to change. Jackson, as a Honor, can take any woman he wants, but it's soon clear he's only interested in one -- Petra Jovans, who is as independent minded as he.

So, the novel at this point seems reasonably conventional. Jackson will foment some sort of revolution, perhaps make peace with the Amsirs, make a life with the lovely Petra, etc. etc. etc. But Budrys has no interest in such a conclusion at all. (And, indeed, Petra never again appears in the novel.)

In the second section, Jackson does decide to confront the Amsirs. He goes back into the desert, pursued by another Honor who suspects his plans, and after dispatching that threat he waits for an Amsir -- and when one comes, he yields to it, and is taken to their home valley. There he encounters the Amsir "Eld", and learns that they are rather more advanced in understanding than the humans, but that they too are constrained to a small area. But besides their thorn, there is a smaller tower -- a tower with a door in it ...

From this point, spoilerphobic readers may wish to stop. Suffice it to say that the two remaining sections feature more revelations, some predictable, some unexpected, and Jackson makes more radical journeys, and learns a great deal about this strange future. But -- uncompromisingly -- though he learns much he remains unable to truly make effective change: this world is the world as it will be, and its people are not of much import.

This isn't one of Budrys' best novels -- my ranking is Rogue Moon, then Hard Landing, then Michaelmas and Who? But it's an effective and interesting novel, with some nice ideas, some unexpected twists, and a dark and unyielding view of humanity. There is some silliness, and the science doesn't work, and the gender political are awfully retro. But it's worth reading, refreshing, very strange.

So, after spoiler space,




The smaller tower in Amsir space is of course a spaceship. The door will not admit any Amsirs who try to enter, and indeed it kills them. But humans it tolerates, though they still cannot enter. The Amsirs capture humans in an attempt to find one who can open the door -- and Honor succeeds. But, naturally, he proceeds immediately to commanding the spaceship to take off -- and soon learns that he is on Mars, and the humans -- and also Amsirs, who are humans modified to better tolerate Martian conditions -- have been placed there as a research project. And, apparently have since been forgotten. Part 3 of the book (and serial) concerns his trip back to Earth, including a simulated time in college (at Ohio State of all places). And Part 4, then, is about what he finds on Earth. I'll leave the revelations about that for the reader to learn -- suffice it to say that the environment on Earth is not much to Jackson's liking, but there is little enough he can do about it. He won't revolutionize decadent Earth, he won't rescue the abandoned Mars people, neither Amsirs nor humans, he won't return to Petra.

(The relatively short four parts of the serial are easily explained -- each section of the novel neatly fits a serial section, and it hardly would have made sense to divide it up differently.)