Thursday, August 13, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Maid of Maiden Lane, by Amelia E. Barr

The Maid of Maiden Lane, by Amelia E. Barr

a review by Rich Horton

Back to the heart and soul of this blog ... a very obscure book from the first half of the 20th Century (well, technically, from the very last year of the 19th Century) that was fairly popular in its day. This book, like many other such books, isn't tremendously rewarding (in my opinion) to a 21st Century reader, but it's well enough done on its terms, and one can see why the author had a bit of a reputation in her day.

Amelia Edith Huddleston was born in Lancashire, England, in 1831. She married William Barr at the age of 19, and four years later they moved to Texas. By 1867 the couple had 6 (or 7, or 9) children, but in that year her husband and three of the children died of yellow fever. Mrs. Barr and the three (or perhaps four) remaining children moved to New Jersey. She soon began to publish short fiction and religious works, and by the mid-80s was publishing well-received and strong-selling novels like Jan Vedder's Wife and Remember the Alamo. Her primary focus was historical romance. She died in 1919, having written by one count 63 novels, by another count (her Publishers' Weekly obituary) 80 novels. She was well enough known to rate a New York Times obituary as well as the PW obit.

The book at hand is The Maid of Maiden Lane, from 1900. It is apparently the sequel to a well-received earlier novel, A Bow of Orange Ribbon (1886). My edition of the book is part of something called "The People's Library", issued by the American News Company, and it is called "A Special Edition Limited", so I suspect it's not a first edition, but its appearance and wear suggest it dates to more or less the original time of publication. This book is illustrated. The artist is not credited -- the name might be Hedges. My copy was evidently a Christmas present -- it is signed "Bruce Lee Hutcheson from Ione Marie Williams, Dec. 25, 1901" in a rather nice hand.

It is set in 1791 in New York. The titular "Maid" is Cornelia Moran, the beautiful daughter of a man of French descent and a woman of Dutch descent. The hero is a somewhat cocksure but mostly fairly nice young man, Lieutenant George Hyde, of mixed English and Dutch descent. (The ancestry of these people turns out to be of much importance! Indeed George's Dutch mother calls him Joris.) They encounter each other and quickly fall in love, but their fathers, the respected Dr. Moran and the also respected General Hyde, are bitter enemies, partly because they are French and English, also because Moran feels Hyde disrepected him while both were serving under now President Washington during the Revolution.

The main political issue in the United States is whether the Capitol will be in New York or Philadelphia, but the more important poltical issue for this book is the French Revolution. Some (Thomas Jefferson, the Morans) support it, others (John Adams, General Hyde) oppose it, especially as news of atrocities reaches the US. Cornelia's close friend is Arenta van Ariens, a pretty but somewhat vain Dutch girl, about to be married to a French Marquis. Arenta's brother Rem (as in Rembrandt) is in love with Cornelia. There is a fair amount of leadup to Arenta's marriage (she's a bit of a Bridezilla), along with the rivalry of Rem van Ariens and George Hyde. Arenta marries and moves to France, and soon finds herself in terrible danger. Meanwhile Rem and George both plan to propose to Cornelia, while George's father desires him to marry his cousin, the saintly Annie. This becomes more critical when Annie's father dies, meaning the George's father is the heir to an Earldom.

The critical turn comes when Cornelia's responses to Rem's and George's respective letters of proposal are misaddressed. George gets a rejection, and quickly heads to England. Rem's letter is clearly for George, but the cad does not send it on to him. This leads to agony for George -- and no good result for Rem either.

The rest of the book turns on the events that lead to the discovery of Rem's bad behavior, in which Annie plays a critical role. There is also business revolving around Arenta's dramatic fate in France, and side plots such as Cornelia's Aunt Angelica and her long lost husband. It's a pure romance novel, a bit silly, with main characters who really don't convince and have little chemistry, but with enough going on and effectively enough written that it passes the time. There is a lot of guff about ethnic differences, never really becoming offensive -- indeed, the characters' attitudes are viewed as mildly reprehensible. (The black characters, I should perhaps add, are all slaves, but portrayed with respect (though with little notice) -- one certainly might argue that this was a fairly accurate portrayal of contemporary attitudes and situations.) The attention paid to details of clothing (for both the men and women) is fairly noticeable -- to me this marked the novel as distinctly a piece of "women's fiction". Ann Leckie noted, in an unrelated discussion when the book came up, that women of the time (1900, as well as 1791) were often making their own wardrobes, and these details were possibly not only of general interest to them but of some practical use.

As with so many of the books I've covered, this is a book whose contemporary popularity, in retrospect, is not surprising -- but which doesn't really seem likely to ever again attract any wide readership.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Forgotten Ace Double: Wandl the Invader, by Ray Cummings/I Speak for Earth, by Keith Woodcott (John Brunner)

Ace Double Reviews, 87: Wandl the Invader, by Ray Cummings/I Speak for Earth, by Keith Woodcott (John Brunner) (#D-497, 1961, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've featured Ace Double reviews in this space before, but those were reposts of reviews I did some years ago. This is my first new Ace Double review in several years -- it features two novels that, I think, really are mostly forgotten by now.

This is yet another Ace Double featuring a pretty good early John Brunner novel (under his most usual pseudonym), this time paired with an early piece of scientifiction from one of the more respected writers of Gernsback era stuff.

We'll begin with the Ray Cummings book. Cummings was born in 1887 and died in 1957. He worked for Thomas Edison from 1914 until 1919 as a technical writer, which gave him a certain cachet in writing about scientific subjects. By far his most famous work, still slightly remembered, is the novel The Girl in the Golden Atom, which was serialized in All-Story Weekly in 1922, as an expansion of a short story of the same name that appeared in All-Story in 1919. The short version of this piece seems to have been Cummings' first fiction, and he continued writing stories in that vein, mostly in All-Story and in Argosy, which eventually absorbed All-Story, but also in other magazines of the era such as Astounding and also Hugo Gernsback's Science and Invention, one of the magazines he published before starting Amazing Stories. Cummings continued to publish even after John Campbell's revolution mostly superseded the sort of fiction he wrote, though he stopped publishing serials. He did write any number of short stories for the SF pulps like Astonishing and Thrilling Wonder until his death.

Wandl the Invader was serialized in Astounding in 1932. It was a sequel to Brigands of the Moon, which began its serialization in the third issue of Astounding, in 1930. It is set in a future in which space travel is well-established within the Solar System, and essentially human civilizations have been discovered on both Venus and Mars. (Interbreeding is possible, for instance.) A small planet called Wandl has appeared in the Solar System, and Gregg Haljan (hero of Brigands of the Moon) is recruited to captain a spaceship to resist the evil intentions of the planet's inhabitants.

The opening sections have some interesting ideas and images, such as a roofed New York. Haljan and his buddy Snap, along with their girlfriends, Anita and the Venusian Venza, first investigate the appearance of a Martian pirate and his sister, Molo and Meka. It turns out the Martians are in league with the invaders from Wandl, who turn out to comprise controlling all-brain creatures, who are carried around by huge humanoid entities. Wandl, it turns out, has a sort of massive tractor beam technology, and they are planning to grab Earth, Mars, and Venus and tow them back to the Wandl home system.

The girls are kidnapped by the Martians (Molo seems to fancy them), and Snap seems to be killed. Haljan joins his ship and blasts off to fight the Wandl ships, but they are too powerful, and he ends up captured as well. Naturally they end up on Wandl, where they learn something of the Wandlian social organization, and the Great Intelligence ruling everything, and they end up finding their way to the single point of failure of Wandl ...

Well, you see where this is going. It's really stupid stuff. You can see that Cummings had talent -- his ideas were silly but sometimes intriguing, and his prose was effective pulp work, not at all nice but fast moving, with occasional interesting images -- much better than the run of Gernsback era writers. The plot, however, is just routine, never believable. This story and a fewer other early Cummings pieces were resurrected by Don Wollheim at Ace shortly after Cummings' death. One suspects, uncharitably, that Wollheim got a good deal from the estate. I'd say the stories really deserve to be forgotten, by and large.

I'm on record as being very fond of John Brunner's early work. It was by and large efficiently executed, with interesting central ideas, usually pretty thoughtful, marred mostly by a certain hurriedness, especially in coming to a conclusion. I Speak for Earth fits those parameters, maybe biased a little more towards the thoughtful end of things. As noted, it was published as by "Keith Woodcott", a pseudonym he used quite often, for short fiction and novels, in his early career.

This novel isn't entirely forgotten, by the way: Mike Resnick praises it in his book Resnick at Large, where he confesses that he didn't much like Brunner's writing, but he did like this short novel by one Keith Woodcott, and was gobsmacked to learn that Woodcott was a Brunner psedonym.

I Speak for Earth revolves in one way around a very familiar idea: the alien Federation of Worlds has discovered Earth. They are quite perturbed by humanity's history of violence, but improvements are being made. Still, before they allow the first human starship to be completed, they want to evaluate humanity's worthiness to join the Federation. To that end, they have asked us to choose one representative to travel to a Federation world and spend a month there -- after which that person's behavior will serve as a benchmark for the decision on whether humans can travel to the stars, or whether we will be penned up in the Solar System. Obviously, this isn't a new idea -- it had been used, pretty much, in for example Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, only three years before.

The neat wiggle Brunner introduces is this: humanity's leadership (the UN) decides that it is ridiculous to send just one human as a representative. So they choose six people, very accomplished people from a variety of cultures, who represent a variety of high achievement, and use a newly developed technology to allow one man's mind to host five additional minds. The viewpoint character is Joe Marea, a very talented engineer, one of the leading workers on the starship project. He is to be the physical host for the other five minds, two women and three men (the women from India and China, the men from Russia, Africa, and Germany via the US). Joe is also newly in love, with a beautiful and brilliant woman, who he doesn't realize has been deputized to evaluate his fitness for the project.

The bulk of the story covers the time the six people spend together, learning about each other, then (by surprise) being integrated into one mind. This is pretty interesting stuff, and well done. The integrated individual is then produced as the Earth's representative to the Federation of Worlds (while in the background some rather disquieting reaction of extremists on Earth is portrayed). Joe-etcetera goes to the Federation world, and the last few chapters depict their experience there, where they are treated quite unfairly ... but of course prevail. I thought this concluding bit came off maybe a somewhat too pat, but it's still a pretty decent story.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Guys and Dolls, by Damon Runyon

Old Bestsellers: Guys and Dolls, by Damon Runyon

a review by Rich Horton

Damon Runyon (full name Alfred Damon Runyon) was born in 1880 in Manhattan, KS -- perhaps a sign that he would end up closely associated with the more famous Manhattan. He became a newspaperman, getting his start in Colorado, but by 1910 he was in New York. He was a sportswriter (even in Colorado), and in New York he covered the Giants baseball team. He also covered other sports, notably boxing and horse racing, and harder news such as the Pancho Villa raids (during which he met the woman who broke up his first marriage and became his second wife). He was an acquaintance of Villa, and one of his closest friends was a mobster. He became most famous, eventually, for his short stories about the criminal element in New York. He died of throat cancer in 1946.

His career somewhat resembles his near contemporary Ring Lardner, who was also a sportswriter who later became well-known as a writer of short fiction, and who also was known for writing in an exaggerated vernacular. (Lardner of course was associated with Chicago and not New York.) (Contemporary SF readers will recognize Runyon's style in a number of recent pastiches written by Mike Resnick.)

Runyon's short stories were mostly set in New York, in a milieu of small-time gamblers and gangsters. The style is immediately recognizable -- always present tense (somewhere it is claimed that there are something like three instances of the past tense in his oeuvre), with an engaging mixture of extravagant slang, formal diction, and strange nicknames. There are a number of oft-repeated phrases -- "at that", "ever-loving wife", "more than somewhat", etc. The effect is primarily comic, as well as often somewhat sentimental. His work became even more famous with the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, and with the 1955 movie version of the musical, starring  Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine. The book I'm covering here is the Pocket Books collection called Guys and Dolls, from 1955, issued to coincide with the release of the movie. The book comprises most of the text of Runyon's 1932 collection also called Guys and Dolls, with three stories deleted and replaced by five stories "about the characters in the show". In fact the first of these stories, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown", is the primary source material for the musical and the movie. (Another story from the original collection, "Blood Pressure", is another source.) It's clear that the title of the musical was not based on the Runyon book, but is just a useful phrase common to Runyon's work that nicely characterizes the show.

I won't bother to detail the plots of the various stories -- they revolve around gamblers and gangsters, and people in trouble because they've crossed a gangster, and people in trouble because as usual they've bet their last dollar on a losing proposition, and people in love with the wrong doll or the wrong guy (though those things often work out just fine). The time frame is mostly during Prohibition, sometimes during the Depression.

"The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" perhaps serves as an exemplar: Sky Masterton is a gambler who will take just about any bet, and when he falls in love with Sarah Brown, a beautiful young woman working to save the souls of the lost folk of Broadway, he starts betting people their souls against making a certain craps throw. In the end of course he loses these bets -- but wins Miss Sarah Brown.

The stories often end in such a sentimental way, with a good (or mostly good) woman winning the heart of a fairly bad man (and at least to an extent reforming him). Of course that's not always the case -- Nicely Nicely Jones' marriage in "Lonely Heart" is certainly a counter-example! There are also a number of stories centered more closely on actual criminal enterprises -- often featuring the unnamed narrator getting involved against his will in the schemes of one of the more dangerous locals. The tone remains always comic -- but the stories don't always resolve in the most optimistic of fashions. But throughout this is very entertaining work -- if you enjoy the voice, you'll enjoy the stories. I'm not sure how many in a row one can really read without the effect palling -- but taken in small enough doses it's pretty fine stuff.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Old Bestsellers: The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

a review by Rich Horton

Back to the archives for a review of a book I did a couple of decades ago -- certainly an "Old Bestseller", in its English translation The Leopard was the third bestselling novel in the US in 1960 (the same year To Kill a Mockingbird was 11th). It's by no means a forgotten book, I should add.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1896-1957), a descendant of an old Italian aristocratic family, and himself a Prince, and apparently something of a lifelong playboy and dilettante (though perhaps that reputation is questionable), worked on this book, his only novel, for many years prior to his death. He finally finished it in the late '50s, only to see it rejected. (Some have suggested it was rejected for political reasons, and early Marxist reviewers also disparaged the book on political grounds. Later critics have tended to read the book instead.) He died in 1957, and a publisher reconsidered. It was published in 1958, and became a great International success. A well-received movie with Burt Lancaster in the title role was made in 1963.

When I first read I approached it with high expectations, and I was thoroughly satisfied. The novel, apparently based on the life of di Lampedusa's great-grandfather, is the story of a proud, sensual, Sicilian aristocrat at the time of Italy's Risorgimento (1860 or thereabouts), and his reaction to the changes he sees in his society: mainly the inevitable, indeed necessary, but still in some ways regrettable displacement of the aristocracy from their traditional position. The title character is a wonderful creation, and the lesser characters about him (his wife and children, his favorite nephew, the Jesuit priest Father Pirrone, and so on), are also very elegantly depicted. The Sicilian countryside, and telling details of social life at that time period, are also fascinating elements of the book. And finally, the prose is wonderful, and this translation seems very good, save for just a couple mild moments of clunkiness.

(The following paragraphs will summarize some of the action of the novel: I will try to avoid spoilers (and after all this is hardly a plot-driven novel), but the very spoiler-conscious may wish to stop here.)

The Leopard, then, is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, at the time of the main action a man in his forties, with several children. He is a sort of benevolent tyrant in his household, a man of a very old family, accustomed to knowing his place and to having those about him know their places. The Prince is also a man of great sensual appetites, careless with his money (though not wasteful or dissolute), politically knowledgeable but completely apolitical in action, and also an amateur astronomer of some note.

When the story opens, the Risorgimento is ongoing, but it is clear that it will be ultimately successful, and that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will be absorbed into the newly unified, somewhat more democratic, Italy. Don Fabrizio, out of loyalty, is nominally supportive of the old regime, but he realistically stays out of the conflict. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, the penniless but charismatic son of his sister, is an ardent supporter of Garibaldi (leader of the revolution).

Several long chapters, separated by months, follow the progress of the Risorgimento at a distance, and more closely follow events which impinge directly on Don Fabrizio's life, yet which reflect the coming societal changes. These include the plebiscite to confirm popular support for the unification of Italy, his nephew Tancredi's love affair and eventual marriage to the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly lower class neighbor, his daughter's reaction to the attentions of a friend of Tancredi's, and Father Pirrone's visit to his home village. Finally, the action jumps forward some decades to the Prince's death, in a very moving and beautiful chapter, then still further forward to the household of his unmarried daughters in their old age.

The events of the story tellingly illustrate both the changing face of society and also the nature of Sicilian society in general. At another level, the Prince's aging and death, and his knowledge of his own mortality, echo the senescence of his class. Loving descriptions of the Prince's homes, of his meals, of balls, of hunting, of peasant life, of politics both at the Prince's level and at the level of the peasants, of the attitude of churchmen towards their flock (especially Father Pirrone's toleration but not approval of his friend's sensual escapades) are laced throughout the novel. Moreover, the Prince himself is a truly compelling, charismatic character, full of faults but an admirable man nonetheless. Also, the narrator's voice is often with us, ironically, often even cynically, commenting on the expectations of the characters and both their failings and the failings of "real life" to meet their expectations, but, though sad, the voice is never bitter.

I am not particularly good at selecting quotes from novels to illustrate their virtues, but I will try to show some of what I found wonderful in this book with this longish, beautiful passage, concerning the courtship of Tancredi (the Prince's nephew) and Angelica: "Those were the best days in the life of Tancredi and Angelica, lives later to be so variegated, so erring, against the inevitable background of sorrows. But that they did not know then; and they were pursuing a future which they deemed more concrete than it turned out to be, made of nothing but smoke and wind. When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret, they had been days when desire was always present because it was always overcome, when many beds had been offered and refused, when the sensual urge, because restrained, had for one second been sublimated in renunciation, that is into real love. Those days were the preparation for a marriage which , even erotically, was no success; a preparation which, however, was in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief, like those melodies which outlive the forgotten works they belong to and hint in their delicate and veiled gaiety at themes which later in the finished work were to be developed without skill, and fail." I hope this gives a sense of the leisured, luxurious prose, the elegant metaphors, and also the cynical authorial voice which are such great pleasures in this book.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Tempest-Tost, by Robertson Davies

Old Bestsellers: Tempest-Tost, by Robertson Davies

A review by Rich Horton

More Canlit! (After Michael Coney last week, and Frederick Niven and John Buchan not too long before that.) Robertson Davies of course is one of the most towering figures in 20th Century Canadian literature, and one of my favorite writers. As I recall I began reading him about when his novel What's Bred in the Bone appeared to a great deal of notice (and a place on the Booker Prize shortlist). I started, instead, with his second novel, Leaven of Malice, but soon read the rest of his work, including his most famous novel (Fifth Business, from 1969). My favorites among his work are Fifth Business and What's Bred in the Bone, which is probably a pretty standard view.

Unlike the other "Canadian" writers I've covered here, Davies was not born in the UK. He was born in Ontario in 1913. His father, William Rupert Davies, was a newspaperman, originally from Wales (as the name Davies suggests), who became a Senator late in life (and stayed on until his death at age 87). Robertson Davies grew up in Renfrew, Ontario, went to Queen's University in Kingston, then took a B. Litt. at Oxford, He spent a few years in England and Wales, acting (including some time at the legendary Old Vic), before returning to Canada to work in the family trade, journalism. He was literary editor at the Saturday Night, before becoming editor (later publisher) of the Peterborough Examiner (one of his father's papers). With his father and brother he owned papers in Peterborough and Kingston, as well as some radio and TV stations. He wrote books on acting, and in the late '40s he began writing plays, many quite well-received, such as Eros at Breakfast and At My Heart's Core. He also wrote a column (for the Examiner) of humorous observations under the name Samuel Marchbanks. These columns were collected in three books. (Along the way I've read all Davies' plays, the Marchbanks books, High Spirits, and his various collections of belles lettres -- all with a fair amount of enjoyment.)

That's a picture, already, of a very successful journalist and man of letters. He also had a major later career in academia, teaching literature at Trinity College of the University of Toronto from 1960 to 1981, and serving as Master of the University's graduate college, Massey College, from 1963. And he published a World Fantasy Award winning collection of ghost stories, High Spirits, that originated as stories he read at Christmas gatherings at Massey College. But of course none of those things are what he's really remembered for. Despite his deep love of the theater, and his family background in journalism, and his respect for higher education, his true calling was as a novelist.

Tempest-Tost was his first novel, published in 1951. It was quite successful as far as I can tell, though probably not a bestseller (except perhaps in Canada, as Brian Busby suggests). (My excuse for including it in this series of essays on Old Bestsellers is that Davies eventually produced official bestsellers: What's Bred in the Bone, for instance, peaked at 11th on the New York Times Bestseller list (that same week, Jean Auel's The Mammoth Hunters was number 1). As for it being "Forgotten" -- well, it isn't! But more attention for such a great writer is still good, and Tempest-Tost is one of his least known novels.) My copy of the book (or one of my copies) is the American First Edition, from Rinehart and Company in 1952. (The true first appeared from Clarke and Irwin in Canada.) I got this copy at the huge used book sale held every year at the West County Mall in St. Louis County ... it was one of the "Rare" books.

Tempest-Tost is set in the fictional town of Salterton, Ontario, home of Waverly University. (Presumably based on Kingston, home of Queens University.) The story is set around a production of The Tempest by the Salterton Little Theatre. It is to be directed by Salterton native Valentine Rich, who has become a successful director and actress on Broadway -- a coup for the leader of the Little Theatre, Valentine's childhood friend (or perhaps just acquaintance?) Nellie Forrester. The play is to be presented as a pastoral (i.e., outdoors), and they have inveigled the use of the grounds of a well-off widower named Webster, who has two daughters: precocious 14-year old Freddy, and beautiful 18-year old Griselda. (The unspoken payment for this is giving Griselda the part of Ariel.)

The novel's focus shifts between several characters -- Freddy, Griselda, Solly Bridgewater, and perhaps most importantly, Hector Mackilwraith. Hector is a math teacher, about 40 years old, a bachelor, who has been serving as the Little Theatre's business director for some time. He has a rather awful widowed mother (and his father was a rather awful minister before he died), and he's not really terribly interested in anything beyond math and an orderly life. But he decides he wants a part in The Tempest (a modest part, Gonzalo), and he is able to arrange this, despite a relative lack of talent. Much of the business of the novel revolves around the amusing aspects of putting on the play, and the silliness and self-importance of just about everyone involved (Valentine mostly excepted). But the real fulcrum of the novel is a love quadrangle (of sorts) that arises when Hector Mackilwraith, Solly Bridgewater, and the rather caddish but handsome Roger Tassett (who plays Ferdinand), all fall in love with Griselda. She has not too much interest, really, in any of them (save maybe Solly just a bit), but she plays along perhaps a bit too much. And Hector, who is quite a sad case, really, works himself up into a dreadful state over things.

It's a comedy, and a light comedy, so no real disasters result. But there are lots of nice set pieces, and plenty of witty writing. There is some cruelty, some of it, to my taste, overdone and perhaps unearned. (Noticeable are several quite awful mothers.) And the "good guys" are perhaps too easily marked (Valentine, Freddy, and Humphrey Cobbler, who is hired to do the music for the play). Davies always had a tendency to lecture just a bit, usually in a pretty old-fashioned way, and there was always enough truth in it to make it worthwhile (and the parts that seemed wrong, or humbuggish, to me were wrong in mostly the right way, or in a nice way) ... but his lectures here don't quite have the depth that those in later novels had. In the end it's a funny and quite enjoyable novel, if certainly a minor work in Davies' oeuvre -- a good start to a magnificent career but not a great work in itself.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Nearly Forgotten SF Novel: Hello Summer, Goodbye, by Michael G. Coney

Hello Summer Goodbye (and I Remember Pallahaxi), by Michael Coney

A review by Rich Horton

Hello Summer, Goodbye came out in the UK from Gollancz in 1975. It was later published in the US (by DAW) as Rax, and in Canada as Pallahaxi Tide. Coney wrote a sequel to it, I Remember Pallahaxi, but was not able to publish it. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2005, he placed three novels and some short stories on his website, including I Remember Pallahaxi. It was published in hardcover by PS Publishing after Coney's death.

Michael G. Coney (1932-2005) was born and raised in the UK but spent about the last half of his life in Canada. He published a great many stories and novels from about 1969 through the early 80s, then fell mostly silent: after 1984 there were a pair of novels in 1988 and 1989, and a new spate of stories in the mid-90s, mostly in F&SF, with a couple of later stories in Spectrum SF. He was a colorful writer, notably influenced, it seems to me, by Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance. Many of my favorites among his stories were those set on the "Peninsula", a touristy area a bit reminiscent of J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands or Lee Killough's Aventine. He was a very fine writer, of just that sort of quiet accomplishment to doom him to obscurity even as he was often praised ...  and it seems to me that after his death his reputation has only receded.

Hello Summer, Goodbye concerns Drove, a teenaged boy on an alien planet. (He seems very human, but eventually we learn that his species is humanoid but not exactly human.) His family summers at the coastal town of Pallahaxi. At Pallahaxi Drove hopes to meet again the girl he met the previous summer, Browneyes. But Browneyes is an innkeeper's daughter -- too lower-class for Drove's father's taste. Still, they do meet again, and they begin a sweet love affair. Their relationship is strongly affected by tensions between the Pallahaxi villagers and the government. The villagers are not enthusiastic supporters of an ongoing war, and they are suspicious of the government's motives in diverting supplies from Pallahaxi, and of their intentions for the weapons that are passing through town. All this is set against a backdrop of climate change caused by the planet's unusual orbit about its Sun and the effect of the large nearby planet Rax.

The SFnal color in the background includes interesting creatures such as ice-demons and the telepathic (or at least empathic) lorin; the apparently highly mutagenic environment of this planet; the somewhat exaggerated fear the natives have of cold; and some curious weather such as the grume -- a decidedly odd ocean current that comes every summer. Much of this is fascinating but scientifically difficult to take. I was reminded of Jack Vance in everything but the prose.

The novel comes to a rather unexpected climax, when the reason for the war and especially for the government's actions in Pallahaxi are revealed. They are quite surprising, and rather bitter in implication. Drove's sympathies of course align with the villagers and Browneyes, but his father forces him in another direction. The ending of the novel is deeply sad, but also somewhat ambiguous -- there is a hint of a possible sort of redemption for at least Drove. It is finally quite a beautiful bittersweet book.

The sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, is set centuries in the future of Hello Summer, Goodbye. It explains the backstory and mysteries of that novel in a very satisfying and interesting fashion. (I have to suspect that Coney invented much of this after writing the first book -- though who knows! Though if he did have it all in mind when writing the first novel, he showed amazing restraint in concealing some neat ideas, including a rare example of actual real live Alien Space Bats.)

Right at the opening we learn that the narrator is a stilk -- humanoid but not human. Much is made of the differences between humans and stilks, most importantly the stilk ability to directly experience the memories of ancestors in their same sex line. The stilk with the longest memories is traditionally chief of his village -- or of hers. Males and females live separately, coming together only to mate.

The hero is Hardy, the nephew of his village's chief. Their family has a tradition that their memories go back all the way to the legendary founders of stilk society, Drove and Browneyes. Hardy soon meets a girl, Charm, from a fishing village, thus not considered an appropriate mate. To complicate things, they realize they love each other enough to want to live together -- much like Hardy's father and mother, who do not actually live together but who pervertedly see each other again and again and feel continued affection.

The novel’s plot turns immediately on Hardy’s father’s murder, but more importantly on the coming climate change -- it seems that the dead planet Rax is once again claiming their world, threatening another long freeze and starvation. But this time, the situation is complicated by the presence of humans, who have traded with the locals for mining rights. The humans, however, refuse to help with the freeze, citing the Prime Directive (not called that, of course). Stilk society begins to fall apart. And Hardy and Charm begin to sense a great secret involving the telepathic lorin.

The resolution is largely as we begin to expect, though with some nice fillips. The love story of Charm and Hardy isn't quite is sweet as that of Drove and Browneyes, but it works. The various revealed mysteries are quite delightful, and also rather thought-provoking (and, in a way, ultimately perhaps tragic -- or perhaps not -- hence the "thought".) I enjoyed it -- if perhaps not quite as much as Hello Summer, Goodbye (the first novel’s heartbreaking sweetness is hard to top) and I am thrilled to see both novels back in print.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson

A review by Rich Horton

Robert Louis Stevenson of course remains a very famous writer, with a reputation skewed slightly towards books for younger readers, like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Child's Garden of Verses; though of course his adult horror story The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains very popular as well. This is somewhat unfair, and it's partly due to the disdain of the modernists, notably Virginia Woolf, whose criticism led to a distinct dimming of his literary reputation, though he has been (justly) rehabilitated somewhat in more recent decades.

He was famous as well for his somewhat dramatic biography. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 to a family of lighthouse engineers. He somewhat disappointed his father by not taking to engineering, though he did eventually take a law degree, even though he never practiced. He was sickly his entire life (at the time, tuberculosis was blamed, but more recently, Wikipedia says, other diseases like bronchiectasis and sarcoidisis have been proposed). He traveled widely, partly for his health. He married an American woman, ten years his senior, Fanny Van de Grift, and eventually moved to the United States, before finally moving to Samoa, which probably was ideal for his health. He was an advocate for independence for the Pacific Islanders, and was apparently very well-liked by his neighbors. His health eventually failed completely, and he died in 1894.

When a teen I read The Black Arrow, an historical novel set during the Wars of the Roses. It was one of my favorite books. Oddly enough I didn't read much else by Stevenson -- I did read, and enjoy, David Balfour, the sequel to Kidnapped (apparently better known everywhere but the U. S. as Catriona), and I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but never Treasure Island nor Kidnapped. I knew of other well-regarded works like The Master of Ballantrae and the unfinished Weir of Hemiston, but again never read them.

I ran across my copy of The New Arabian Nights at an antique mall recently. I had never heard of it. Turns out it's his first book of fiction -- it was published in 1882, comprising stories that appeared in magazines between 1877 and 1880. It has a fairly strong reputation. He put out another collection, unrelated except by title, called More New Arabian Nights, in collaboration with Fanny Van de Grift, in 1885. My edition is a 1906 reprint, the "Medallion Edition", octavo size, from Current Literature Publishing of New York. I have to say I like the habit of books of that era of including illustrations, even just author portraits as here.

The "Arabian Nights" conceit comes from the first two sets of stories in the book, one group of three entitled "The Suicide Club", comprising "Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts", "Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk", and "The Adventure of the Hansom Cab", and another group of four called "The Rajah's Diamond", comprising "Story of the Bandbox", "Story of the Young Man in Holy Orders", "The Story of the House with the Green Blinds", and "Adventure of Prince Florizel and the Detective". These are linked stories, each ending with a postscript from "my Arabian author", perhaps telling of the final fate of a major character, and also hinting that the reader might want to continue to the next stories. All the stories feature Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his Master of the Horse, Colonel Geraldine. Prince Florizel is accomplished, rich, and very well liked, but on occasion he and the Colonel, out of a taste for more adventure, go in disguise to low places.

The three stories about "The Suicide Club" open with the Prince and the Colonel meeting a young man who despairs of his life, and who invites the two men to join the title club, which he himself has just joined. There are several members of the club, and each time they meet they choose by lot one member to be killed, and one member to do the killing. (All members have sworn to accept this lot (they are all tired of life anyway), and to keep things secret.) The Prince realizes of course that this is an evil thing, and that the Club's leader, the one man who is exempt from the lotteries, is actually acting for his own ghoulish entertainment. In the first story, the man who invited the Prince to join the Club is chosen as the "murderer", and the Prince acts to save him from the consequences of his murder and to unmask the President of the Club, who escapes to Paris, where Colonel Geraldine's brother vows to go to find him. In the second story, an American in Paris is inveigled into a relationship with a woman of questionable morals, who it turns out is in league with the President of the Suicide Club -- they have a rather grisly use for the American's huge Saratoga Trunk. In the third, Prince Florizel finally tracks down the President and puts and end to his career.

"The Rajah's Diamond" concerns the unpleasant General Vandaleur, who has been given a diamond by an Indian Rajah for his service in that country. The diamond proves sufficient to lure get the General a beautiful wife, but she soon tires of him, and he tires of her spendthrift ways, not to mention her encouragement of the rather feminine and useless Harry Hartley as her sycophant. Lady Vandeleur finally decides to sell her jewels, with the diamond, to get more money after her husband refuses to continue to pay her bills, and she sends Harry on that errand, but he proves unequal to the task, and loses most of the jewels. In the next tales, the diamonds, stolen by a gardener, ends up with a less than honest young clergyman, who, in looking for a way to safely get rid of the diamond, encounters, the General's equally unpleasant, and estranged, brother. The two become accomplices, but hardly happy ones. There is an episode with a poor young man who is offered a good deal of money if only he will agree come to Paris at a certain night and attend a play, and also to marry the woman chosen by his benefactor (who turns out to be his illegitimate father) ... Obviously something funny is going on, and Prince Florizel, in the end, helps set things straight.

These are both enjoyable story cycles. The Prince is an amusing character (with an amusing final career). The various hapless young men who get involved are a bit less convincing, and the way things turn out reasonably well for them seems a bit undeserved and perhaps implausible on occasion. The plots are driven by a certain degree of coincidence, to be sure. But they are fun.

There are four further stories, all unrelated. "The Pavilion on the Links" is a long story (25,000 or more words) about a man who encounters an old acquaintance at a secluded pavilion in the Scottish linksland (I confess I thought "the Links" meant a golf course, but instead it means the seaside land where many of the greatest Scottish golf courses are placed; and "links" must mean something like land linking the inland to the sea, instead of the links between one golf hole and the next). His acquaintance, a less than pleasant man, seems to be up to something -- he's accompanied by a beautiful young woman and by her father. It turns out the father is a criminal who caused a bank to fail, and made off with the remaining funds, and he's being pursued by Italians related to Garibaldi ... The hero falls in love with the young woman, which enrages his acquaintance who wants her for himself, but all must band together to save the others from the Italians.

The other three are set in France. "A Lodging for the Night" is about Francis Villon, and portrays him as a decidedly nasty man, on the run after his involvement with the murder of a fellow thief, himself destitute after his other fellows have robbed him, desperately looking for shelter on a snowy night. "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" is about a soldier who by accident ends up going through the title door, and being forced by the unpleasant Sire to marry his daughter, whom he believes has had her virtue compromised. And "Providence and the Guitar" is a lighthearted story about a French man and his wife, traveling musicians, and their troubles in a small town where the Commissaire is corrupt and the residents ungenerous, until they meet an unhappy couple (the wife wants the husband to get a real job).

Stevenson is known as one of the progenitors of what is called "the Age of the Storytellers", and this collection of stories supports that -- they are all enjoyable, full of adventure, and engagingly told.