Birthday Reviews: Crowley, Rothman, Taylor

This week: a speculative sandwich with one story partly about how hard it is to hold on and one partly about how hard it is to let go, with a superscience adventure between!

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John Crowley (1942-12-01)

“Snow” (Omni, November 1985)

This opens with Charlie telling us how his deceased wife’s ex-husband bought her a “Wasp” and the contract that goes with it. The Wasp is a recording device designed to follow her around and store eight thousand hours of her life at a repository where she is to be buried and where visitors may come to commune with these recordings. It seems Georgie is older than Charlie but still young when she does die and the body of the story consists of his coming to visit her resting place and his experiences with this technology, as well as his interactions with the director of the place when he encounters problems with the technology. There are a lot of ways such a story could go but the way this one chooses is to be a stylish, dark, philosophical meditation on memory, death, and entropy using literal and technological snow as a symbol and which seems to show the ultimate emptiness of life, the universe, and everything, but which seems to vector toward a zen-like peace which keeps on keeping on. Not my kind of story, but weighty and skillfully done.

Milton A. Rothman (1919-11-30/2001-10-06)

“Heavy Planet” (Astounding, August 1939)

[Adapted from my 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers.]

Pseudonymous Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot.

Lucy Taylor (1951-11-30)

“The Family Underwater” (Close to the Bone, 1993)

This story bristles with sharply horrific phrases jabbing like fire urchin spines and comical ones glinting like bioluminescence in the dark deep. It’s set in a house filled with water in which family members may metamorphose into sea creatures but, for all that, it’s an all-too realistic story of abusive, dysfunctional families, habituation, and, worst of all, how difficult it can be to escape from them even if you’ve left.

Birthday Reviews: Anderson, de Camp, Pohl

Nine months after the cold days of February, three Grand Masters were born on consecutive days (and several other authors were born during this week that, but for time and space, I could have covered—and may some year soon). They give us tales of an interstellar war, an immortal neanderthal, and a very odd couple.

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Poul Anderson (1926-11-25/2001-07-31)

“Time Lag” (F&SF, January 1961)

This may not be among Anderson’s best stories (at one point, a character thinks “a short, dry lecture might soothe” another) but I like it and it’s the one I wanted to re-read this time.

Elva the Vaynamoan is returning home from having been out doing leader-like things in her stable, non-sexist, free, open, healthy, low-population society which preserves the environment of her colonial planet and respects the semi-intelligent natives thereof when a spaceship enters the atmosphere for the first time in centuries. Of course, it turns out that these are invaders from a society that is antithetical to hers in essentially every way and they destroy Elva’s home, kill her husband, and capture her, but fail to shock the Vaynamoans into immediate surrender. The leader of the expedition, Golyev the Chertkoi, takes her back home with him as he readies a second expedition, to be followed by a third intended to finally bring Vaynamo to subjection even though it will take quite some time due to interstellar travel and even longer for the two worlds due to time dilation and the twin paradox. This leads to a pyrotechnic climax in which we learn more about Elva and the Vaynamoans. The story’s full volume is not as simplistic as I’ve boiled it down to and produces an exciting and involving experience.

L. Sprague de Camp (1907-11-27/2000-11-06)

“The Gnarly Man” (Unknown, June 1939)

An anthropologist happens to go to a sideshow where she meets what’s presented as “Ungo-Bungo the ferocious ape-man” but whom she recognizes as (im)possibly something else: a neanderthal. She manages to talk with him and introduce him to some of her fellow scientists, who take varying views of him, while we learn that he was struck by lightning fifty thousand years ago and hasn’t aged since. He’s gone from time and place in various guises and occupations, most recently being Clarence Aloysius Gaffney, sideshow actor. Problems arise when he tries to get some poorly mended broken bones treated and finds a doctor who seems willing to help him, but actually has other ideas.

This reads almost like a sequel to Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” (published a month earlier) if the neanderthal in it thought he was the last one, not knowing that one of his kind had become immortal. On the other hand, it’s almost like a rejoinder in which the pitiable misfit is replaced by an admirable one. It could be more strongly plotted (only having enough to produce some tension and hang the main notion of a modern-day neanderthal on) but it mostly works with good old-fashioned story-telling, with that intriguing central notion, an effective tone and mood, and some nice phrases.

Frederik Pohl (1919-11-26/2013-09-02)

“Day Million” (Rogue, February/March 1966)

Many of today’s readers might be interested in and surprised by this story’s take on non-binary omnisexuality which transcends most of today’s “cutting-edge” but, really, this tale of the love of “Don” and “Dora” is a tour de force of future shock which uses sparkling prose and intense conviction to convey both how far we’ve come and how far we may go. Its six pages are the distilled quintessence of science fiction, itself.

Birthday Reviews: Ballard, Foster, Jones, Swanwick

This week, I have a double shot of musical plants and one posthumous fantasy which all, in different ways, feature a man and a woman, as well as a warning about war which features the human and the inhuman. (Things came up, but apologies for the belated Ballard and for leaving only a few minutes for Jones.)

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J. G. Ballard (1930-11-15/2009-04-19)

“Prima Belladonna” (Science Fantasy, December 1956)

I first read this and another Ballard story in Judith Merril’s Best of the Best many (many) years ago. They made quite an impression on me and yet it took me until relatively recently to get any Ballard books and I still haven’t read them. Anyway…

This is the tale of a sort of summer romance in the future in which people are in Recess(ion) and lazing the days away. Our narrator is a relatively industrious seller of musical plants (choro-florist) who meets an exotic golden-skinned woman with insect eyes. Its narrative approach combines the British SF authors’ fascination with vegetation and an almost Heinleinian casualness with the furniture of the future. Its prose style consists mostly of straightforward sentences composed of simple words combined in turn with some polysyllabic Latinate inventions. Together, these elements create a dreamy realism of faintly musical prose suited to the story.

That said, it is, as Hawthorne might say, very “symbolical of something” but isn’t actually particularly science fictional. Extract the science fiction and, as long as different metaphors for the psychosexual dynamics of the prima belladonna and the man who glances off her are substituted, the story doesn’t fall apart. But it is a good piece of writing, either way.

Alan Dean Foster (1946-11-18)

“Ye Who Would Sing” (Galileo, December 1976)

American Alan Dean Foster also writes a tale of musical vegetation but his orchestral orchard is quite detailed and made to seem literal and true while at the same time showing, as Congreve said, that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

John Caitland is returning from an elliptically expressed job (presumably of assassination) when he’s caught in a storm and crash-lands in a remote hidden valley. The valley’s sole inhabitant is the research botanist Katie Naley who nurses him back to health. He finds that the valley is full of the last surviving Chimer trees which are worth uncountable millions after having been harvested into presumed extinction due to both their musical appeal and their inability to reproduce off-world. He greedily bides his time, learning and healing, but also changing in ways he doesn’t understand.

This is almost diametrically opposite from Ballard’s impressionist post-romanticism, with music being a classical balm in a highly structured tale in which the plot and concrete complex ecology bear much of the weight and provide much of the interest while the style is usually workmanlike but sometimes descends to saying things like “An aroma redolent of fresh bread and steaming meats impinged on his smelling apparatus.” But it is a compelling science fiction story, either way.

Raymond F. Jones (1915-11-17/1994-01-24)

“A Stone and a Spear” (Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1950)

After WWII, scientists continue to work on superweapons for the next war– not just of the atomic variety, but biological weapons and others. This prompts Dr. Curtis Johnson to think of the saying about not knowing what weapons WWIII would be fought with but knowing that WWIV would be fought with stones and spears. He’s on his way to try to bring Dr. Hamon Dell back to his war work after Dell had mysteriously abandoned it to become a farmer. When Johnson gets there, he encounters a strangely changed Dell who is dying in great pain and reveals part of the mystery which leads Johnson to meet with other men to learn more of the mystery which may change Johnson’s life… if it doesn’t end it.

Much like Haldeman’s Forever Peace, I don’t actually like this story in ways because I despise Rousseau’s notion of “forcing people to be free” and I also don’t like blaming science for the world’s ills. Still, it is a tense and exciting tale which raises interesting issues with no simple resolutions.

When one of the men talking to Johnson says, “Certain cells of the brain are responsible for specific characteristics. Ways of altering these cells were found” and talks about how this could be used to introduce “wholesale insanity” in “entire populations” and when they talk of countries being “committed to inhuman warfare” so that “each brutality prepares the way for the next” it seems timely. The irony is that, in my opinion, that’s just what the story seems to ultimately advocate – an inhuman peace more brutal than war.

Michael Swanwick (1950-11-18)

“Radio Waves” (Omni, Winter 1995)

Opening with “I was walking the telephone wires upside down, the sky underfoot cold and flat with a few hard bright stars sparsely scattered about it,” this posthumous technofantasy of electronic aeolian harps quickly develops a ghostly milieu with its own rules and logic, introduces us to Cobb (the tattered and mild shreds of a bad man in life), the Corpsegrinder (his nemesis), and the remains of a woman he initially knows only as Charlie’s Widow. Fighting against the impulse towards and revulsion from joining the cosmic background radiation as well as the soul-stealing Corpsegrinder, he actually finds his relationship with Charlie’s Widow to be perhaps the most significant thing.

I love posthumous fantasies in general and the freshness and power and sheer imagination of this one make it one of the best. I’m not sure how well it would fare today as we don’t seem to be capable of forgiving much these days but it’s an excellent story.

Birthday Reviews: Baxter, Bova, Harrow, Nagata, Vonnegut

This week’s large birthday gang (which could have been still larger) brings us a couple of big-canvas super-science tales, a quietly hard SF tale much closer to home, a social satire, and a powerful ghost story of the recent past.

An unusual thing about this week’s gang is that the majority are still able to celebrate their birthdays. And apologies to Linda Nagata and her fans for being a little late with hers.

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Stephen Baxter (1957-11-13)

“Something for Nothing” (Interzone #23, Spring 1988)

A nameless narrator, Harris the astronaut, and George the physicist are aboard a nuclear pulse rocket and have just caught up to the alien craft they’ve been chasing since it zipped nearby (shades of ‘Oumuamua). When they discover that the alien designers may have been attempting to send their DNA-equivalent to the site of the Big Bang/Big Crunch on a multi-billion year journey, the materialistic astronaut who wants to cut up the ship for fun and profit and the idealistic physicist who wants to respect the aliens’ intentions have a terminal disagreement. This evokes big thoughts, wide space, and deep time mediated by small interpersonal conflict rather than overwrought romanticism and stands closer to the front than the back in the long line of “guys in space solve a problem with a clever twist” and smaller line of tales such as Asimov’s “The Billiard Ball” on “unusual ways to kill a man.”

Ben Bova (1932-11-08/2020-11-29)

“To Touch a Star” (The Universe, 1987)

Aleyn has been betrayed by his best friend Selwyn and exiled from his world, time, and one true love, Noura. His exile takes the form of a one-man mission to study a star a thousand years’ journey away from our own star which has become unstable and will destroy civilization in a few thousand years. When he arrives, he learns that “that’s no star. It’s a Dyson sphere!” Actually, it’s a two hundred million year-old Dyson sphere which, when he gets inside, he learns barely contains an old, angry, unstable star… and an ancient and powerful guardian who refuses to let him leave as his ship’s heat shield begins to fail.

This, alas, suffers a little from overwrought romanticism or at least a misplaced devotion to its characters (on- and off-stage) and their issues but it’s not too badly done in that regard. Also, I have no idea how they could be looking for a specific sort of star and mistake a Dyson sphere for it, yet have just that sort of star in that Dyson sphere. But, other than that, it’s pretty well done in that regard. The discovery, adventure, and goshwowsensawunda is all present to a high degree and its emphasis on the will to survive for the individual and the species is excellent.

(P. S.: This shares the setting of “The Last Decision” but is perfectly self-sufficient.)

Alix E. Harrow (1989-11-09)

“A Whisper in the Weld” (Shimmer #22, November 2014)

Adapted from a review on my old site from 2015-05-22

I was so impressed with “The Animal Women” (which turns out to be Harrow’s second story) that I went looking for more and found her first. It shows what an opening line hook is.

Isa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco.

We proceed to learn about the Bell family, which had moved from Kentucky to Maryland during WWII: how husband Leslie went off to fight and has been reported killed; how Isa came to build ships and die under a furnace in the story’s present of 1944; how the orphans Vesta and Effie (Persephone) strive to stay together; how Isa, as a wonderfully conceived ghost, is caught in an interplay of metaphysical forces urging her to go and personal “mule-headedness” enabling her to stay. She doesn’t want to see her children abandoned and she really doesn’t want Vesta to go to work in her place.

This has all the excellent writing, deft characterization, tangibility of time and place, and other virtues of “The Animal Women” and minimizes the one major problem of that tale. While there is a white bossman at the shipyards who is probably not a very great guy and serves as a magnet for Isa’s frustration, symbolizing the war machine and the society that isn’t always kind to its members, this is more a function of his position than his personality. The conflict is more between desires and facts and, while Isa may not fight all facts, she fights as much as she can.

I still think the two stories demonstrate a problem with, for example, the villains being too flawed and the heroes not flawed enough and the social motifs sometimes detracting from both the individuality and universality of the characters which are otherwise excellent, but Harrow is definitely a writer to watch.

Linda Nagata (1960-11-07)

“Codename: Delphi” (Lightspeed #47, April 2014)

Adapted from a review on my old site from 2015-06-09.

A woman is in a control center in a future military, physically safe but mentally responsible for the lives of many people in her charge who are emphatically not physically safe. This simply covers one of her shifts and, while the story allows the character to occasionally have a second to grab a sip of water from a nearby bottle or the like, neither story nor character deviate from their mission for more than those seconds in the cracks between wall-to-wall tension.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-11-11/2007-04-11)

“Harrison Bergeron” (F&SF, October 1961)

Liberty, equality, fraternity! But what if liberty and equality are antithetical? In a world in which a Handicapper-General makes sure that any beautiful people are made ugly, any strong people are made weak, any skilled people are made incompetent, so that all will be equal, what place is there for a handsome giant and a beautiful ballerina? And if they try to make a place, what sort of place would that be?

An interesting, concise tale (which may have inspired Ellison’s variant, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”) that offers no easy answers.

Birthday Reviews: Barrett, Dickson, Ewers, Haldane

This week’s birthday gang brings us a bittersweet comedy, a bitterersweet drama, a Halloween horror, and a mob-ridden monetary melodrama.

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Neal Barrett, Jr. (1929-11-03/2014-01-12)

“Perpetuity Blues” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1987)

This is the tale of “Maggie McKenna from Marble Creek” and a hilarious tale it is, but also an affecting one that can be read as very sad and, yet, ultimately perhaps upbeat even so. Maggie’s a small-town Texas girl whose father has disappeared and whose mother has died when she ends up with her lecherous uncle and an aunt who’s primary advice is to for God’s sake never sit on anyone’s lap. Maggie deals with many people, some good and some bad, both early in her life and on her big move to New York to become a playwright. The most important early encounter is with Oral Blue, a albino-looking man who claims to be an alien and who dresses and lives in blue. How he and her stories entangle is profound and also very funny, as he talks about being attacked by “Mormon terrorists” on one occasion and then by Vikings on another, whom he describes as “worse than Mormons.” Later, her most important influences are the truckers who get her to New York (one of whom has a library where all the books are written by various people named “John”) and, when she arrives, she declares, “Lordy, it looks near as real as a movie.”

This sort of makes me think of Tom Robbins turned up to 11. One of the most effective elements is how it takes a narrative tone that has room for ironic/comic distance on the one hand and for Maggie’s subjectivity at the same time, as when we get a flash as through a microscope when we learn that Maggie “liked to wander over limestone hills where every rock you picked up was the shell of something tiny that had lived.” It’s a very engaging, funny, and layered story with a superb “voice.”

Gordon R. Dickson (1923-11-01/2001-01-31)

“Dolphin’s Way” (Analog, June 1964)

A scientist is trying to communicate with dolphins while fearing the budgetary ax will fall when a strangely attractive reporter arrives and begins asking him questions. Over the course of the story, we get his theories about tests aliens might have for humanity and how we might communicate with dolphins and then witness his pyrhhic victory. This is an excellent tale about linguistics, the Fermi Question, the nature of “humanity” and the cosmos. There is a problem with some gaps in the reporter’s knowledge, it seems to me, but this is about the only blemish on a story that does a great job of packing a lot of ideas into a very short and intelligent space and is also strangely vivid and concrete, perhaps due to its focus on clarity and essentials, allowing the details of place and sensation to achieve more than those in most stories do. This is also a good story to enrich the perspectives of those who see Campbell and/or Dickson stories in simple, monolithic terms.

Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-11-03/1943-06-12)

“The Spider” (Die Besessenen, 1908)

Happy Halloween! (And with minutes to spare.) This tale of a medical student renting a room in which three people have hanged themselves on consecutive Fridays is steeped in sex and death (or eros and thanatos, if you want to get fancy and Freudian) and combines a third-person omniscient presentation of the student’s diary, giving the best of both narrative worlds while the student suffers the worst of both psychosexual worlds. While I question its “psychological” underpinnings, it’s a creative and skilled dramatization of them and, while I can’t get into it without spoilers, it makes an odd antithesis to the preceding story. (Also, the little dash of number-play that I think I see is a twistedly amusing element.)

J. B. S. Haldane (1892-11-05/1964-12-01)

“The Gold-Makers” (The Inequality of Man, 1932)

The following is adapted from my review of Great Science Fiction by Scientists.

Several scientists have written SF stories. Many are surprisingly melodramatic and, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J.B.S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is a strong example, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining.

Birthday Reviews: Brown, McConnell

Late yet again, but still right on the day (in some time zones) for McConnell and in time in all time zones for Brown.

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Fredric Brown (1906-10-29/1972-03-11)

  • “Imagine” (F&SF, May 1955)
  • “Recessional” (Dude, March 1960)
  • “Nightmare in Yellow” (Dude, May 1961)
  • “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” (Galaxy, June 1960)
  • “Jaycee” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)
  • “Answer” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
  • “Rebound” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)
  • “Abominable” (Dude, March 1960)
  • “Not Yet the End” (Captain Future, Winter 1941)
  • “Experiment” (Galaxy, February 1954)
  • “The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver (I, II, and III)” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1961)
  • “Reconciliation” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
  • “Pattern” (Angels and Spaceships, 1954)
  • “The End” (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961)

Fredric Brown has written excellent long stories, on up to novel length, but there are probably few people who have written more, better, shorter stories. That is to say, he wrote a lot of excellent short-shorts. Even when they’re not perfect, there’s usually something either interesting, funny, or thought-provoking to them that makes them worthwhile and, it seems, the darker they get, the better.

“Imagine” is an unusually sunny piece which argues that reality, looked at properly, is at least as amazing as fantasy or science fiction. “Not Yet the End” shows the perils of sampling errors when aliens come to Earth looking for slaves, while “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” shows how Martians overestimating humanity (or underestimating our capacity for erroneous estimations) can lead to disastrous consequences. Some tackle theological issues: “Answer” turns Asimov’s “The Last Question” on its head with a bitter twist while “Jaycee” shows, with blasphemous verve, an unforeseen side-effect of compensating for a deficiency of males in the population. Conversely, “Abominable” adjusts a legend’s implicit sexism in a comical mode that might offend chauvinists and feminists alike. To borrow from the great Murray Leinster’s title Twists in Time, several of Brown’s short-shorts involve time travel with twists, especially when the travelers push things too far. “Experiment” is perhaps the most audacious of these but, at the same time, not entirely satisfying, and “The End” is clever and comical piece but sort of a one-shot. “The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver” (originally published as “Of Time and Eustace Weaver”) is a more detailed and character-based tale of a ne’er-do-well trying to get something for nothing which is quite ingenious until the traditional ending.

Above all those, four stick out (and one goes with a couple of them in varying ways).

“Pattern” may be one of the more perfect twist short-shorts with its two calm protagonists contemplating the imaginatively conceived aliens who seem to go about their business on the earth while the majority of humans panic. The quiet economy of the set-up and twist is superb. And “Recessional” may be the most striking in this batch of stories as the subjective view of a chess game takes on cosmic proportions in a few words on a universe beyond good and evil.

“Nightmare in Yellow” has no speculative element but to omit such a masterpiece of a dark and twisted twist because of that would be a… crime. The only flaw, as in some of the best puns, is a slightly manufactured premise but this tale of an embezzler’s plan to take the money, run, and knock off his wife as a bonus, is brilliant. A lesser (but still rewarding) tale relates to this in showing a reverse relationship in which the hate is open and the ending is changed as more pressing matters intervene. And it makes me think of how trapped people can become in seeing relatively small things as greater than they are and missing the bigger picture. Which brings in “Rebound,” the tale of a petty and ridiculous man who happens to figure out how to wield inordinate power and plans to become a huge dictator until (as I fervently hope really happens) his solipsistic viciousness “rebounds.”

James McConnell (1925-10-26/1990-04-09)

“Learning Theory” (If, December 1957)

The following is adapted from my review of Great Science Fiction by Scientists.

Some stories involve entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence. One of the best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem.

Birthday Reviews: Hamilton, Le Guin

Late again, but still in time to wish our birthday twins a happy birthday in the beyond. (They were both born on the same day, have feathers on their covers, and bring us idealistic tales in which one divinely-tinged creature’s suffering makes pleasure possible for others.) Plus, there’s a special birthday demento–er, memento at the end of this post.

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Edmond Hamilton (1904-10-21/1977-02-01)

“Exile” (Super Science Stories, May 1943)

This brief tale is almost impossible to review because of its twist ending and its structure, which is simply the after-dinner conversation of four science fiction writers turning immediately to the fantastic tale of one of them, after another mentions the notion of being glad he never ended up in any of the worlds of his imagination. The details in this, such as the comment on knowledge versus belief or how the discussion of the two worlds is simultaneously simple, yet remarkably detailed and coherent, are effective and the tension between idealism and realism, the nature of fiction and reality, is actually quite powerful. Reading this story is akin to taking a step in a puddle and suddenly finding yourself fully underwater.

(For a Halloween bonus, I’ve also previously mentioned another piece by Edmond Hamilton in an old review of Weird Tales.)

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-10-21/2018-01-22)

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (New Dimensions 3, 1973)

Every time I read this story, I’m surprised at how it initially seems annoying as the narrator intrusively hypothesizes what the nature of the utopia in the story might be and then I’m surprised again at how powerful it becomes as the price for this utopia and the conflict within each person who does or does not accept the bargain is shown. If one person’s torment could produce utopia for all others, what then? In a way, the tale is a reductio ad absurdum in that a more realistic scenario might be “If we were Utilitarians who sought to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, this implies that some number will not receive the greatest good. And what then?” But, by concentrating it to its utmost, perhaps it is a reduction to a core reality? And either way, what would you do? (And the cynic or masochist or Christian (a motley crew?) could note one of the options the story doesn’t address, which brings up the Dostoevsky Le Guin says she’s forgotten: If one had the opportunity to endure misery for the sake of providing a utopia for the human race, shouldn’t they do it? And if it could be voluntary, shouldn’t the human race honor that choice?)

Either way, this concretized thought experiment is obviously deficient in many of the usual storytelling virtues (which is not unusual in SF but for which SF is usually condemned while this story is praised) but it is a powerful and thought-provoking piece.

(Incidentally, I’d recommend reading this in its original collection, as the author’s note before the story is also excellent. I’ve never forgotten “‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?”)

Bela Lugosi (1882-10-20/1956-08-16)

“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (Bauhaus, 1979)

Birthday Reviews: Morrison, Schmitz, Wilde, Wodehouse

Picking up where I left off a couple of years ago, here are reviews of stories selected from people born in the coming week of October 10-16 (or what would have been the coming week if I weren’t a few days late). The stories include a cake baking contest, a bank robbery aftermath, and a contrasting pair of fractured fairy tales.

(There is one birthday that falls in the missed days that I feel like mentioning even if no short fiction goes with it: Happy Birthday and Halloween to Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1924-10-10/1978-12-10)!)

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William Morrison (1906-10-13/1980-06-02)

“The Model of a Judge” (Galaxy, October 1953)

There aren’t many SF stories about judging a cake-baking contest but this is one, involving as it does a wolf-like native inhabitant of a moon which humans have colonized who has been conditioned away from his carnivorous ways and modified into a semblance of humanity, but who still retains his amazingly discriminating taste and more. As the judge overhears seemingly scattered conversation amongst the bakers and then tastes their wares, he reflects on his past, his present, the people who have made him what he is, and then comes to his interesting decision. This is an unusual, well-constructed, efficient, thought-provoking tale.

James H. Schmitz (1911-10-15/1981-04-18)

“An Incident on Route 12” (If, January 1962)

James H. Schmitz is best known for his strong female characters, ranging from mature scienstists to cute little witches who exist in far-flung times and spaces but this little gem features a tough bank robber on the way to make his escape when he encounters car trouble. The horror he inflicts on a good Samaritan is nothing to the horror to come. A really short, hardboiled, powerful masterpiece.

Oscar Wilde (1854-10-16/1900-11-30)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” (The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888)

Best known for his witty plays and powerful novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde also wrote poetry and short fiction. In this, a Student of the philosophy that he’s read in books wants to dance with a girl who has said she would if he gave her a red rose, but he has no rose. A nightingale hears his lament, decides he’s a true lover, and undergoes an astonishing ordeal to help him. This tale makes me think of things like “philosophy will clip an angel’s wings” and “love is blind” and so on, but the point is that it’s quite a striking and cynical “fairy tale.”

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-10-15/1975-02-14)

“Sir Agravaine” (Collier’s, June 29, 1912)

Perhaps it’s best to let Wodehouse sum up his own story:

Some time ago, when spending a delightful week-end at the ancestral castle of my dear old friend, the Duke of Weatherstonhope (pronounced Wop), I came across an old black letter MS. It is on this that the story which follows is based.

I have found it necessary to touch the thing up a little here and there, for writers in those days were weak in construction. Their idea of telling a story was to take a long breath and start droning away without any stops or dialogue till the thing was over.

I have also condensed the title. In the original it ran, “‘How it came about that ye good Knight Sir Agravaine ye Dolorous of ye Table Round did fare forth to succor a damsel in distress and after divers journeyings and perils by flood and by field did win her for his bride and right happily did they twain live ever afterwards,’ by Ambrose ye monk.”

It was a pretty snappy title for those times, but we have such a high standard in titles nowadays that I have felt compelled to omit a few yards of it. We may now proceed to the story.

And so it goes that the weak and homely knight and the plain maiden find out what is above strength and beauty and all else. I don’t know that this is his best and, despite threats of dragons and other fanciful things, really only the theme makes this a speculative story but, still, it’s entertaining and amusing, especially (for some reason) regarding the sort of indigestion someone like Agravaine could cause a dragon.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Hardcover: Crown Publishers, 978-0-8041-3902-1, $24.00, 369pp, February 2014
Tradepaper: Broadway Books, 978-0-553-41802-6, $15.00, 369pp, October 2014

I bought this book a long time ago after seeing the movie in the theaters (which is an unusual procedure for me when it comes to SF) and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. I doubt many people interested in it at all have been any slower than I have, so a long synopsis or detailed critique wouldn’t be much good. Basically, a half-dozen explorers are on Mars when a storm starts to tip their exit vehicle and they have to leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived. One of them, Mark Watney, is injured and the sensors indicate he’s dead. After efforts above and beyond the call of duty, his companions can’t find him, so they leave without him. What follows is his tale of fighting to survive alone for a long time with meager supplies.

Among the few problems this book has is that there’s only so much logical suspense over the ultimate story arc given the way the book is written though that also doesn’t stop the emotional response from working (and, to be fair, it’s hard to judge that aspect of the book having already seen the movie). A second is that the narrative structure seems loose, with a huge amount of first-person logging from Watney mixed (sometimes at places where it feels jarring and sometimes not at places where you’d expect it) with some third-person stuff on Earth and some omniscient, objective stuff on Mars as well. And thirdly the protagonist is arguably a bit of wish-fulfillment – yes, he’s a believable human and does screw up and so on, but he’s a damned funny, smart, brave, indomitable person.

On the other hand, I’ve been getting to bed late for awhile because (as is often said hyperbolically) “it was hard to put down.” One of the best things about the book is how well it judges and handles Watney’s problems and successes so that I never got bored with too much success and relative safety or irritated by excessive failure. (The movie actually gives Watney an easier time of it.) I also enjoyed the fuller internal dimension of Watney’s subjective view though the movie’s greater relative balance between the parts makes cinematic sense, too. The book also has more funny lines and clever details than the movie has room for. To further compare the two, the movie is a remarkably faithful adaptation though necessarily much abridged, especially in the back half (which results in a logic glitch to one of the best parts). On the other hand, it adds a famous line and takes cinematic advantage of something that was discussed but not actually done in the book. I rewatched it on completing the novel and had forgotten how fantastic it looked, too.

If you’re feeling at all jaded about SF or life in general, either treatment of the story will help with that. Basically, if you’ve liked the book or movie at all and haven’t experienced both, you almost certainly want to try the other.

At one point while reading this I came to hope they’ve begun passing it out in every classroom in the country (or world) and, when looking for the cover art for this post, was delighted to stumble across a classroom edition (though that probably just means they censored the frequent profanity). This book is a great guide to life, itself: explore, educate yourself about reality, face facts, solve problems, take necessary risks but be smart about it, never give up, keep a sense of humor, be hopeful, survive, and help your fellow humans.

Review: Stormland by John Shirley

Stormland by John Shirley
Hardcover: Blackstone Publishing, 978-1-09-401782-2, $26.99, 338pp, [April] 2021

This will not be a review so much as a notice because I actually read this immediately after The Godel Trigger and entered the above information to start the review, but never got around to writing anything else until yesterday (on a different book) and this is no way to write a review.

As I remember it, the premise of this book is that climate change has led to a constant series of storms hitting the southern United States, making the region almost unlivable but making it one of the better places to hide out with the people unable to leave if you’re a criminal or otherwise want to leave the rest of the world. Another element is the continued privatization of all things, resulting in various law enforcement corporations. The main protagonist is a rent-a-cop who remembers when things were otherwise and prefers those times, but has been sent out to track down a serial killer who has disappeared into Stormland. Another element is the strife between a rich showoff and his son during and after the former crashes his fancy vehicle into Stormland. And, along the way, we meet various natives and a couple of the 1% who are evil voyeuristic mind-controlling nutjobs. (And there just might be something more broadly symbolic and thematic in that.)

I’m not generally a big fan of cli-fi or apocalyptic stuff but I am a pretty big fan of John Shirley. My favorite book of his is Eclipse and there was a moment in this when the near-future scenario, the eclectic band of characters, the socioeconomic themes, and the vivid, gritty tangibility of this book excited me with the feeling that I might have another Eclipse-level book on my hands. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that but that’s a high bar and I still enjoyed it. Perhaps the worst thing is the very premise, in that I have a hard time buying the notion of what seems to be basically a year-round procession of hurricanes while the rest of the planet seems to be more or less “normal.” (I have thought about Earth developing a Jovian permanent storm which seems a little more plausible, but I don’t know.) The weirdest part was how this was at once ferociously apocalyptic and oddly cozy with lots of nice and semi-mean people and only a few utterly vicious folks, with most of the latter not even being in Stormland. But this mixture is actually probably more realistic than either purer form of apocalyptic fiction. I think one of the best parts was the relationship that develops between the cop and the killer and the questions raised by the latter’s past and current state, which I’ll let the reader discover. Ultimately, it’s a pretty action-packed and thoughtful book.