Sporadic Book Haul #2

This is a micro-haul which I ordered online early in the current event and which I received awhile ago. Along with a used triple-CD, I got two new books, both SF novels, and four used books: a non-fiction SF book (which finally completes the recovery of both volumes), one poetry book (which finally completes the “New Oxford Books of Verse” series for me), and two history books (which are parts of series). If the thumbnail isn’t big enough and/or the spirit moves you, you can click to embiggen. 🙂


Birthday Reviews: Chandler, Delany, Vinge

This week’s birthday reviews give us two novellas around a novelette and the trio takes us from ships of deep water to gambling dens of Mars and ships of deep space where we meet merfolk, cyborgs, and stranger things.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-03-28/1984-06-06)

“Giant Killer” (Astounding, October 1945)

Insofar as this story depends on a reveal at least midway into the story and another at the end, this doesn’t work at all because what is revealed should be obvious to most readers. Insofar as it depicts a strange society bent on eradicating members outside its bounds of normality while that society exists in a world it doesn’t really comprehend and insofar as it engages the reader’s interest by creating characters with strange powers fighting with each other and the powerful and inscrutable giants who dominate that milieu as some of them come to understand it better, it’s a fantastic success. It even goes beyond this in being quite philosophical and thought-provoking without stopping the action to pontificate. Very good stuff.

Samuel R. Delany (1942-04-01)

“Driftglass” (If, June 1967)

The protagonist was modified into a merman as a boy and then was modified further when an underwater industrial accident crippled him. Now near middle-aged, he spends much of the story with his fisherman friend and with the next generations of merfolk, contemplating his past and their future. The “south of the border” setting and elements like fishing for marlin (albeit in a way you’ve never been able to fish for marlin before), along with its viewpoint stoicism which observes many people who are less stoic, puts me in mind of a weird sort of Hemingway, though the style is more elaborate. Either way, the milieu is vivid and the characters breathe (whether in or out of water).

Joan D. Vinge (1948-04-02)

“Fireship” (Analog, December 1978)

If “Fireship” makes you think of something off the shoulder of Orion, you may be disappointed as this is not that. The “fireship” is a metaphor for the protagonist, which references ships set on fire and sent into an enemy’s armada. On the other hand, if you weren’t thrilled by The Snow Queen, you may still enjoy this. It’s a proto-cyberpunk story in ways, dealing with Ethan Ring, who is the symbiotic cyborg personality of a computer, ETHANAC, and Michael Yarrow, a sort of guinea pig or sacrificial lamb chosen to test the mind-machine connection because he was expendable. Having become a new being with the instinct for survival, Yarrow/Ring becomes known as a thief (and plays a mean game of cards) which results in his flight to Mars where he gets sandwiched between a dictatorial tycoon and the operatives trying to overthrow that ruler. In addition to the cyborg and the seedy underworld characters, it even has a faint whiff of noir style or at least a sardonic tone. While I don’t entirely buy some of the psychology of the conclusion, it contains interesting ideas that are at least worth entertaining and the whole story is involving and exciting.

Links: 2020-03-23

I normally post a book review or the like every Monday and post this sort of thing on some Wednesdays and was planning to do this one this Wednesday but I ironically haven’t been able to do much reading lately and this is ready to go, so here it is.

Science Fiction




  • The History Blog » Tiny new bird dinosaur found in amber. I guess the skull strength indicates that it’s not immature? Because that’s the first explanation for the size that occurs to me, but that isn’t addressed. Still several weird attributes aside from that, though.
  • The History Blog » #UffiziDecameron. I have done and will do my best to avoid the current event aspect of this, since I think there’s enough out there if you want it and some might welcome a reprieve but, since I’d also thought about the wonderful Decameron and there are nice, upbeat things about this article, I thought I’d share this one.



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Birthday Reviews: Gallun, Piper, Rucker

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-03-22/1994-04-02)

“Derelict” (Astounding, October 1935)

Jan Van Tyren was a big wheel until his family was killed when some of the native Loathi of Ganymede revolted. On his way back to Earth, he comes across a derelict ship that’s come from outside the solar system long ago and has some amazing experiences there, resulting in a new condition. It’s a tale with too many adjectives and not a lot of action but is a mood piece which runs counter to the generic notion of 30s SF and displays great imagination.

H. Beam Piper (1904-03-23/1964-11-06)

“Time and Time Again” (Astounding, April 1947)

This is an incredibly simple story in one sense: in 1975, during a battle at Buffalo in WWIII, Captain Allan Hartley is too close to an atomic bomb blast and will die soon, except he wakes up in 1945, in his thirteen-year-old body, but retains full knowledge of the intervening thirty years. The details of this, what he does both small and large in 1945, his explanation for it, and his plans about what to do with it are not so simple and make this story very effective. My one reservation is that Allan and his dad seem to have extraordinarily flexible minds but they aren’t portrayed as average in any other way, so even this isn’t really a problem.

Rudy Rucker (1946-03-22)

“Pac-Man” (IAsfm, June 1982)

This is an amusingly dated phildickian piece about a woman who gets a job at a bank and her husband who’s working at a video arcade. When he has a couple of really good games playing Pac-Man [1] things get really strange.

[1] “Peg-Man” in the original version of the story because editor George Scithers had some strange notions about copyright.

Review: Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg

In my coverage of the stories Robert Silverberg published from 1963-1975 it’s no more time for me to post a review of Born with the Dead than it was to reprint the review of The World Inside but I’m going to anyway. This is revised from a post I made on an SF discussion board on December 19, 2012 to remove irrelevant antipathy to Silverberg’s introduction to the collection (Isaac Asimov’s “cheerful self-appreciation” entertains me but Silverberg’s bitter self-appreciation didn’t) and in an attempt to at least slightly improve it generally, but the substance is unchanged.

Born with the Dead is subtitled/blurbed “Three Novellas About Here and Hereafter.” The stories all hail from 1970-74 but, other than things like the topicality of population pressures and futures set in what is now the past, they don’t feel especially dated. While not hard SF, one of the stories even contains something close to e-books and print-on-demand while another has a HUD/GPS of sorts.

The title story is well-regarded by many, including the author, whose introduction describes how he packed into it his “deepest thoughts about love, marriage, boredom, obsession” and complains about how it lost an award. However, I prefer the winner, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya,” which deals with many of the same topics in a much more dramatic and convincing fashion. That’s not to say “Born with the Dead” is a bad story–far from it. It’s about a husband who can’t let go of his “rekindled” wife after her death while she wanders about with her new undead friends without care for her previous connections. This central idea is good and passages in the story are splendid but I think it could have worked better as an evocative “prose-poem” sort of short story because it didn’t consistently grip me over its span as a novella. While it’s obviously about love, marriage, obsession, and boredom, and boredom is effectively conveyed, the rest is not as effective over the course of the story and I don’t think or feel all that differently or profoundly about those topics after reading it. Further, the “deads” aren’t detailed in any plausible way—making them purely literary—and the way the society of “warms” interacts with this phenomenon is also implausible, to say the least. This is fantasy in science fiction’s clothing.

Despite being less renowned, the other two stories in the collection worked much better for me. “Thomas the Proclaimer” is similarly a fantasy story told in science fictional terms in that a ruffian/rogue-turned-prophet instigates a moment of world prayer in 1999 (story written in 1971) which causes the world to stop moving for about 24 hours. From that fantastic starting point, a realistic story (except in the magnitude of its satire) of millennial and historical delirium takes off. The “march to the sea” (when the calculating Plato/Saul/Judas character allied to Thomas tries for a second miracle) is an unforgettable depiction of sheer mass madness. But there are also many subtler satirical touches of, for instance, the multiplying sects and interpretations.

Going” is one of four story ideas given by Isaac Asimov to Silverberg and three other writers for an anthology. It starts out almost feeling like an Asimov story with much dialogue but becomes more Silverbergian as it deals with a society in 2095 where medical advances have made possible prolonged, vigorous lives which almost always reach the 13th to 19th decades. Given this, a social structure has come about where people are voluntarily euthanized whenever they feel like to make way for new lives. The focus is on the spontaneous decision of a famous composer to Go. He heads off to a House of Leavetaking where he tries to tie up his life’s loose ends and prepare himself to die. This raises all kinds of thought-provoking ideas. One is on the nature of societal “use” where the government encourages the less useful members of society to Go sooner and the more, later. There’s a somewhat appalling elitism (present in Asimov’s original idea), where “useful” seems to mean “creative” and “not useful” seems to mean anything else, including physical labor, raising children well, and being nice. Then there’s the subjective idea of how it would be to live/die in such a way (would you give up a semi-immortal life? when? why?), along with the objective idea of what sort of government and citizenry would have things this way and how they would afford it.

Birthday Reviews: Cady, Clingerman, Gibson

Jack Cady (1932-03-20/2004-01-14)

“The Night We Buried Road Dog” (F&SF, January 1993)

This fantasy/horror novella is narrated by Jed, who is looking back on the events in his life and the lives of his friends in Montana from 1961-1965. Brother Jesse is the main foreground focus, along with his graveyard for the beloved defunct cars of folks who want to memorialize them, the plots of which are dug with his bulldozer. Jesse’s dogs, Potato and Chip. also figure prominently, along with big bald Mike and educated little Matt. The main background focus is Road Dog, a mythic driver in an incredibly fast Studebaker that everyone’s always chasing and that everyone keeps failing to catch. Those foci eventually interact in dark, twisty ways.

Relative to SF, I don’t read much fantasy of my own volition. I also don’t tend to wax ecstatic in reviews. But I first read this in Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Eleventh Annual Collection and I didn’t mind this one story being there a bit, science fiction or not. And on re-reading, it’s even better. I think this is one of the select Great Stories like “Flowers for Algernon.” Jed’s voice is as clear as a bell. Jesse’s and Mike’s aren’t too far removed from Jed’s. Matt’s is completely different. Potato and Chip are every bit the characters the humans are. The main cars are, too. And what cars! The metal manifestations of restless, searching America before, and up to, the edge of the Viet Nam war. An America specifically of Montana and the circuit of Western states nearby. Wide open spaces, speed, and spirits, are all evoked powerfully and viscerally. You feel the wind blowing as you rocket down the road at a hundred miles an hour through the night and you see the occasional ghost of someone who has “found a ditch” and gotten a cross by the side. Occasionally, you even find that the headlights coming up behind you are the headlights of dead cars. This is a felt, lived, rich story, which mixes a little fantasy and a lot of reality; a little humor and a lot of pain and loss. I don’t mix anything in my emphatic recommendation.

Mildred Clingerman (1918-03-14/1997-02-26)

“Letters from Laura” (F&SF, October 1954)

Through letters from Laura, which are about her time travel trip to ancient Crete and are addressed to her mother, her friend, and an employee of the tourist agency, a character is cleverly revealed with impish humor. It’s hard to say anything more about this story (which is likely just 2-3,000 words) without spoiling it all and some may not appreciate its 1950s sensibility (though it can be seen as either reinforcing or subverting it) but most should get anywhere from mild to great enjoyment out of it which may even increase on re-reading.

William Gibson (1948-03-17)

“Johnny Mnemonic” (Omni, May 1981)

Johnny’s an empty head, using Intel Inside to store information he has no access to as he makes his way with it from point A to point B. Problem is that his point B of the moment, Ralfi Face, hasn’t come for the information but, rather, wants Johnny dead. So Johnny gets a shotgun to crudely adjust Ralfi’s attitude. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go so well until Molly Millions, with her implanted mirrorshades and retractable claws, decides to get in on the action. They start to take Ralfi some place where they can talk more quietly but a guy with a monofilament wire where his thumb is supposed to be has other ideas. After a stop with Jones, the cyborg dolphin, and a visit with Dog, the human with dog modifications, the assassin is still following them and it comes down to the climactic scene.

In a way, this is just some PKD mindfork stuff wrapped in noir style along with a dash of Brunner and Bester and is just as “80s” as the Clingerman is “50s” but it does have a lot of creativity in its details and does grasp the data-mining information-driven world that many people still haven’t grasped. And, of course, the next year, Blade Runner would show this sort of “decadent urban sprawl of futuristic downtrodden people trapped on Earth” on the Big Screen. It was certainly a nifty thing for a moment and a needed kick in the pants to SF but it’s still kind of amazing that this sort of thing dominated a good chunk of SF for at least a couple of decades and its echoes still reverberate. Just considered as itself, though, it’s a story worth reading.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 42-47

These chapters [1] constitute Part V of the book and cover late-1946 to mid-1949. A major focus is on his return to Columbia after a four-and-a-half-year absence due to war work and being drafted. Once back, he is constantly having great difficulties while striving for his doctorate (with his doctoral thesis being undercut by a realization that the evidence didn’t bear it out, requiring revision and repetition) and for reliable employment (with his GI money ending and Gertrude losing her job) and a decent place to live (moving several times, once back to his parent’s place). Like a little kid on monkey bars, he’s only able to barely grasp the next rung to avoid disaster. Not everything is always dire, though. There’s a very amusing anecdote regarding the famous science fictional satire on chemical papers, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline.” He’d taken the extraordinary step of actually asking for it to be published under a pseudonym out of his fear it would be taken amiss by the chemistry community. However, Campbell “forgot” and it appeared under Asimov’s name. Later, being almost hysterical from the pressure of his doctoral oral examination, he burst into relieved laughter when “Thiotimoline” did come up but, rather than it being held against him, it actually indicated he’d succeeded in the interview. Afterwards, the teetotalling Asimov went out and got very drunk.

This success didn’t especially breed more, however. He still had a hard time finding a job and, almost as bad, was having a hard time writing. He published relatively few stories in each of these years, was basically lashed by Campbell into writing two more of the Foundation stories he had grown to dislike doing because of their difficulty and the labor involved. He also had a bad incident with his second novel-length story which had been commissioned by Sam Merwin, Jr., of Thrilling Wonder Stories. He wrote 48,000 words under the title “Grow Old with Me” and was encouraged by Merwin every step of the way. He handed in the completed work and was then told, due to a shakeup at the magazine and what they wanted, that it would have to be completely rewritten, and Asimov regretfully says “[f]or the first and only time in my life, I openly lost my temper with an editor,” and told him to go to hell. The travails with that novel were not done, though, as Frederik Pohl was looking to get into agenting again and got the story from Asimov, first sending it to Gnome, and then to Doubleday. (Asimov, by this time, was so disgusted with the story that he handed it to Pohl’s eight-year-old step-daughter when it turned out her parents weren’t home.) It was on February 4, 1949 that he reached a low point with all this sort of thing going on in his writing life and having a horrible job interview where the company even initially refused to have it before perfunctorily rejecting him. However, the very next day, he met Walter I. Bradbury, editor at Doubleday, at a meeting of The Hydra Club (a reconstitution of The Futurians) which, though he didn’t know it then, was to have a profound impact on his life. Shortly after this, he got a job as instructor in biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine (though he hated leaving New York) and learned Pohl had gotten Doubleday to take the novel which was to become Asimov’s first book (though it would have to be expanded to 70,000 words and retitled–Asimov decided on Pebble in the Sky).

There is a very funny bit behind getting the job, which is all the funnier because Asimov frequently points out how his beloved research professor often confused what Asimov calls his “stupidity” with what the professor perceived as Asimov’s utmost integrity (which Asimov usually had as well). I’ll let Asimov explain:

[The interviewer] told me I would be expected to teach the Medical School freshmen and asked if I could teach biochemistry.

“Certainly,” I said.

Since he didn’t ask me if I had ever taken any course in biochemistry, or if I knew anything about biochemistry, I felt it would be impolite to force upon him the information that the answer to both those possible questions was “No.” The course wouldn’t start till February and by then I should know enough to get along.

Aside from these main focal points, there are innumerable anecdotes about specific stories and about science fiction personalities. For instance, Asimov details his first anthologizations such as “Nightfall” appearing in the famed Adventures in Time and Space, “No Connection” appearing in the first science fiction “year’s best” anthology (Bleiler and Dikty’s The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949) as well as the story behind why Asimov chose “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” to appear in My Best Science Fiction Story (the anthology was given that name after he’d selected it, having been forced to chose from non-Astounding stories). Orson Welles bought the film rights to “Evidence” and also anthologized the butyl mercaptan story of “Victory Unintentional” (which I think shows Campbell had more SF acumen than Welles but which was rightly very exciting for Asimov). He also describes meeting Doc Smith for the first time at the fifth Worldcon and relates bits about Heinlein along the way, including Heinlein’s divorce from Leslyn (and later getting a Christmas card from “Bob and Ginny,” his new wife), his drift to the political right (after “Heinlein seemed to me to be an ultraliberal all through the days of the Navy Yard and so had Leslyn”), and a very amusing anecdote (though painful to Asimov at the time) about how he’d tried to recycle an old story for Thrilling Wonder but had it rejected the same day he found out Heinlein had gotten a story published in the Saturday Evening Post.

There are also intimations of the future. He gave a talk on SF&F for a general audience which was a significant step on the road to being a professional speaker. He bought his first non-required science book, Samuel Glasstone’s Textbook of Physical Chemistry, which was the seed from which his non-fiction library grew. And, just as the positive response he got from a schoolmate on a story he was telling the boy made him start thinking of himself as a writer, he received compliments on his ability to explain chemistry to laymen, and began thinking of himself as an explainer, even writing a serious non-fiction article for Astounding, which, like his first story, was rejected and which, like his stories, was to be the first of hundreds of successes.

[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

Birthday Reviews: Harrison, Murphy, Reynolds

Harry Harrison (1925-03-12/2012-08-15)

“Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” (Science Fantasy #68, 1964)

Harry Harrison is probably best known for his justly beloved comic “Stainless Steel Rat” tales (or his “Bill the Galactic Hero” series, though I’m much more fond of his space opera parody, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers). Or perhaps his serious “Deathworld,” “Planet of the Damned,” or “Eden” books. Or Make Room! Make Room! (which inspired the movie Soylent Green). Or numerous other longer works. Or his numerous short stories. Here is a strange one in that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy though it feels like it almost must be one or the other. Either way, it’s an amusing, dark, efficient tale.

Amos Cabot is eighty-two years old. One day, he receives a magazine in the mail which is all about death. Furious that someone’s counting on him to die, he storms down to the magazine’s headquarters to find out what’s going on. From the circulation director, he learns that it is underwritten by its advertisers and is sent out based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.

“I ain’t going to die in two years, not me! Not Amos Cabot!”

“That is entirely up to you, sir. My position here is just a routine one. Your subscription has been entered and will be canceled only when a copy is returned with the imprint ADDRESSEE DECEASED.”

“I’m not going to die!”

“That might possibly happen, though I can’t recall any cases offhand. But since it is a two-year subscription I imagine it will expire automatically at the end of the second year. If it is not canceled beforehand. Yes, that’s what would happen.

After discarding the notion of marking it with “deceased” himself because he doesn’t want them to think they were right, Cabot devotes everything to outlasting the prognostication and matters move quickly to their ironic conclusion.

Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty

“Cold Comfort” (Bridging Infinity, 2016)

Pat Murphy is probably best known for her fantasy novel, The Falling Woman, as well as her excellent stories, many of which are science fiction, even hard SF like this one. (This is revised from a review I did on another website.)

A rogue scientist bounces around in the Great White (but Greening) North with a notion to create “methane sequestering mats” out of carbon tubes filled with bacteria capable of metabolizing methane. Since that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and great quantities of it are released when the so-called permafrost thaws, this could be very useful. However, no one listens to the scientist’s proposal until she engages in some relatively mild, discreet ecoterrorism by blowing up a remote frozen lake to make people realize the seriousness of the permafrost and methane situation. With key people not knowing she’s responsible, things begin to break her way and she sets about trying to save the world via crowdfunding, muskoxen, robots, and less likely things. Another problem arises when the political climate of the U. S. changes and has disastrous effects on the ecological climate (not that that could ever happen here). Her research station is shut down and she’s slated to be arrested for working with foreigners to try to save the world. Ever resourceful, she hides out until its safe again. The story picks up 30 years later and provides our cold comfort.

There have been too many recent examples of cli-fi but this is a good one. While the story lacks dramatic tension regarding the skillful protagonist, it has plenty of tension regarding the world’s situation; while it is bitter and cynical in part, it isn’t simply misanthropic; and while I don’t quite like the ending, I’m not supposed to. The bulk of the tale is packed with nifty ideas, details, ramifications and interrelations, and has an actual problem-solving bent.

Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13)

“Merlin’s Gun” (Asimov’s, May 2000)

Alastair Reynolds tends to write doorstops of novels only marginally smaller than Peter F. Hamilton’s bugcrushers and many of them and his excellent stories are set in the “Revelation Space” universe. Here’s something a little different.

Sora is a member of the Cohort, which has been at war for 23,000 years. (We’re told that the Cohort has been fighting the Huskers “ever since those ruthless alien cyborgs had emerged from ancient Dyson spheres near the Galactic Core.”) For her poor marksmanship, she’s on punishment detail, which saves her life when the rest of her ship is destroyed, killing everyone she knows. Her ship had recently done a slingshot around a neutron star but some of the Huskers survived their attempt to duplicate the maneuver and caught her ship in a lonely region of space. Due to her “familiar” (an assertively helpful symbiotic AI), she doesn’t commit suicide in grief but is put into suspension in her escape pod. She wakes to see cosmic ray abrasions clouding the port and finds it’s 3,000 years later. Her familiar has awakened her because a ship has entered the system. It turns out to be a Cohort ship from 7,000 years before Sora’s time. Since the Cohort has actually been degenerating in many ways over the course of the war, this is actually a more advanced ship than hers. When she allows herself to be rescued, she finds that it is piloted by Merlin, a figure of her mythology. The myth says that he’s on a “quest” to find a “gun” which will help the Cohort end the war. This is mostly true, but turns out to be much more complicated. She joins his quest, which takes them to an especially interesting solar system where they encounter automated defenses, Huskers lying in wait under the frozen surface of a moon, and much more. As violent and large-scale as things had been, it all turns out to be minor prologue to the grand finale. (Just as a hint, Merlin’s gun fires black hole bullets and that’s not even the most amazing thing about it.)

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that, later in the story, even the Cohort-Husker war shrinks, as we learn that the gun comes from a war 40-45,000 years before, shortly after the Waymakers (those who had created the interstellar network of altered regions which allow for faster-than-light travel) disappeared and that this, itself, is merely the middle part of galactic history. (These time scales aren’t as staggering as they sound since social evolution has slowed as many people spend centuries or millennia racing through space and not living second after second through normal time, but it’s still pretty wild.) And for those who want human stories, Sora is a real person who has suffered and has decisions to make and even Merlin turns out to be much more man than myth, however much he’s gone through (which is more than it seems at first). It’s stories like this that are why I love both science fiction and short fiction: big ideas on a vast canvas of time and space, told efficiently with zest and zip (all this is done in a 34-page novelette) [1]. “Goshwowsensawunda!”

[1] This is actually part of a series of stories and is even the third one of four in internal chronology, but it was the first-written, is self-sufficient, and, if memory serves, is my favorite of the three I’ve read.

Links: 2020-03-04



Science Fiction

Neal Asher

Asher’s been extra-busy and interesting with his blog lately.

Story Reviews

Here are some more reviews of stories by some people I’ve discussed in recent Birthday Reviews:


  • Ansible® 392, March 2020. In addition to the wonder that is Thog, this issue includes the sad news that Thog’s dad, contributor to the Encyclopedias of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more, Paul Barnett/John Grant has died. The two “As Others See Us” installments are particularly interesting: “According to the statistics on display in Helen Taylor’s lavishly publicised new study [Why Women Read Fiction], women bought 76 percent of the general fiction sold in the UK in 2017 and blokes a paltry 24 percent. Even when it came to the classics, women were still ahead (52 to 48) and it was only when you reached questionable sub-genres such as horror (46/54) and sci-fi (25/75) that the guys really came into their own.” / “Anne Fadiman on Clifton Fadiman: ‘Our father’s library spanned the globe and three millennia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction…” And, of course, there’s much more.
  • Retro Science Fiction Reviews. Just found about this site which is currently reviewing 1944 science fiction and contains links to other 1944 reviews.






More of Corrosion of Conformity’s Reed Mullin…

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Review: Arkad’s World by James L. Cambias

Arkad’s World by James L. Cambias
Hardcover: Baen, 978-1-4814-8370-4, $24.00, 293?pp, January 2019
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-9821-2432-8, $8.99, 394pp, January 2020

In 2211, Arkad is a homeless orphan living on the mixed-tech streets of Ayaviz on the strange, tidally locked planet of Syavusa. Ever since his mother died when he was very young, he’s been the only human in a world of multiple species. Shortly after our story opens, one of the other species mentions having seen others like him. He dashes off to search for them and eventually finds three people who are set on finding a lost starship somewhere on the planet’s surface. Arkad stretches the truth a bit by saying he knows where it is and becomes their guide in exchange for their promise to take him off-world when they leave. A picaresque journey over a good chunk of the planet follows, during which the group encounters pirates, mercenaries, and thieves, as well as a couple of varieties of Elmisthorn, a species which has conquered many worlds, including Earth. In fact, the main value of the ship is that it’s full of cultural artifacts which may help the humans resist the Elmisthorn’s efforts to modify them into compliant members of their “Family of Species.”

Along the way, Arkad learns that his companions aren’t all as human as he first thought, at least in a simple sense (and there’s something odd about Arkad, himself). Jacob Sato, a rejuvenated man of 78 with teaching and military experience, is the leader and, mostly through him, Arkad learns that Ree Bright is a woman whose modification by the Elmisthorn didn’t take and that Baichi is an amalgam of human biology and Machine technology (Machines being a powerful non-biological civilization among the many biological ones). Beyond being an attractive female to Arkad, Baichi is the closest thing to a fellow young person (being fifteen but having only been conscious for ten years after coming online as semi-mature) and both are outcasts of sorts (since Baichi is an example of a failed program of hybrids designed by the Machines to fight the Elmisthorn), so they develop a special bond.

Mostly through Arkad’s guidance, the newcomers become familiar with the Itooti, Pfifu, Vziim, AaaAa, Kchik, Psthao-psthao, and many other races who all have colorful speech patterns, physiques, modes of technology and construction, ethics, etc. Mostly through the newcomers’ guidance, Arkad learns more about the Elmisthorn and other species which mostly pass through Syavyusa rather than having a widespread permanent presence there.

Within this book, there are several references to other books such as Oliver Twist, The Wind in the Willows, and Treasure Island. This conveys both some of the specifics (as this book includes an orphan, has talking critters, and has a treasure hunt) but also conveys some of the general sensibility. A specific element of the sensibility is that those books precede the “YA” or “juvenile” markets. This, despite being a fairly long book [1] with hints of sex and some violence, is kid-friendly without being entirely adult-exclusive.

I enjoyed the first three-quarters of this book but two problems with the last quarter hurt the book overall. Neither one was necessarily fatal by itself but the first let the second hit with full force. The first relates to the fact that I’m not generally a fan of plot-less “quest” stories. Even so, I was enjoying this, but the encounter with the thieves was just one too many incidents too nearly the same as others. While the journey went over land and sea and river and desert and more, it was all just terrain and, while the crew fought pirates and mercenaries and thieves and more, it was all just fighting. The second and most serious problem is with the ending which I mostly can’t talk about but it’s not convincingly plotted and there’s a more serious issue with the characterization, which I can touch on in a general way. While the characters were mostly well-conceived, they didn’t Learn Better or change in any meaningful way [2].

There were also trivial problems and I’ll note two. The first involves the indistinct naming of the people, places, and things. For instance, on a single page, we get people named Fafof, Effa, Papfapa, Fafpip and, in a single phrase on that page, places named “Aefef, Effaf, and even Fiuf.” (And, really, none of these things, places, or people beyond the four main characters turn out to be important though some of them, including Fafof and his Pfifu companion Pfup, feature in an embedded O. Henry-like story in Chapters 10-11 which is excellent.) The second involves small-scale repetitions or contradictions or lapses such as a second description of how the Pfifu run on land as if the first had never occurred, or Arkad initially not knowing about the Elmisthorn invasion but then talking about his mother having referred to it, or having an apparent red herring about the imminent failure of Arkad’s e-reader-like device (which doesn’t even cause him to take advantage of an opportunity to transfer its contents to Baichi).

All that said, this novel does have many great strengths. As I mentioned, the characters are initially strong. The setting is vividly realized. As poorly as the aliens are named, they are richly conceived, and it’s a delight to see how different they are and how this can cause complications and strife but how they basically get along (or fail to get along) about the same with each other as they do with themselves. I particularly enjoyed the changed perceptions that Arkad and we have about one of the superficially least appealing species and even the Elmisthorn are not monolithic. Also as I mentioned, the terrain can’t carry a book by itself, but this is a variegated and strongly-depicted planet. The action scenes on it are not always tightly plotted but are generally exciting and a couple of deaths (one in action, one not; one major, one not) are effectively shocking. The novel is also generally serious but has moments of humor. In one scene, Sato wants to wait for dark to make an escape but realizes that region of Syavusa has no dark and says, “What an inconvenient planet.” And one element I was afraid I might tire of but never did was the third-person present-tense adjective-noun identifiers in the Itooti manner of speech in which “Clever so-and-so asks stupid Arkad why he does such-and-such” and “Embarrassed Arkad asks generous so-and-so to forgive his ignorance” or the like.

In sum, if you’re looking for something that feels like tightly-plotted hard SF, I wouldn’t recommend this but would instead point to Cambias’ superb first novel, A Darkling Sea. However, if you’re looking for something that feels like a Vancian planetary romance this could suit.

Postscript: I want to congratulate Baen’s proofreader (or any and all responsible parties). It was wonderful to read a book in which I noticed no proofreading errors.

[1] It’s not as long as its page count might indicate, however, due to generous font size and whitespace. Based on reading time and a very rough wordcount, I estimate this would be about 260-300 pages of an average paperback.

[2] Given the opportunity, Arkad does begin to wear more clothing and, with less need to steal, he does become a little more honest and so on, but little else changed. (Also, one thing that Arkad does (or fails to do) early on is never satisfactorily addressed and so seems retrospectively out of character or random.)