Birthday Reviews: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

This week, I wish a happy birthday to four authors, including two Gregs, who have moved into the forward ranks of writers with their love of their craft. Greg Bear takes us out to the galaxy and Greg Egan takes us into our heads in can’t-miss stories. Additionally, Robert L. Forward takes us down to an unusual money pit and H. P. Lovecraft takes us up to a strange high house.

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

Several years before Stephen Baxter would begin to mine this sort of thing for at least nine novels and three fat collections, Greg Bear wrote this single remarkable fusion of space opera and cyberpunk about an infinite war between an old species that evolved from the Population II stars versus other species, especially humans, which evolved from Population I stars and its cost to humanity, even if they’re not losing in terms of combat. Most of the story occurs in a virtual reality computer interface aboard a dead Senexi starship inhabited by one Senexi (who is crazy in Senexi terms), two clones of an original human fighter from thousands of years ago (one modified by the Senexi), and a much more modified Senexi/Human hybrid. They learn about human history, hope, and passions, all of which have been lost but for the memory stores of the “Mandate” or the VR/computer. While chapters might have been welcome for breaks, the long, continuous novella speaks with inexhaustible detail which is still mind-blowing in 2020 and does so through a compressed, altered, future-slang-filled style which is conceptually accessible but creates a timeless remoteness (successfully timeless in that it still feels fresh in 2020) and which deals with subject matter which has only grown more relevant with time. This story, snapped up by the under-appreciated Shawna McCarthy, shows why Bear’s golden decade (approximately) of 1983-1993 (about) was one of the most remarkable in SF’s history.

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

“Learning to Be Me” (Interzone #37, July 1990)

Some people think horror is madmen running around with axes. This story is true horror. Tomorrow or the next day, people have “jewels” implanted in their heads, or a device that is trained to “be them.” Every reaction, experience, event: all is mimicked by the jewel so that, when the time comes–say when you’re thirty and feel you’ve lost a mental step–you have the jewel hooked into your nervous system, your brain scraped out and replaced with something more like an artificial liver or kidney, and go about your business as the same person you always were, except immortal. Half the story follows the life of the protagonist at various ages with various reactions to the concept of the jewel and his attempts to get himself to undergo the operation. The second half of the story takes a sharp turn and, while somehow already having you on the edge of your seat from the freaky ideas and black humor, it turns into a calm, sedate, contented horror the like of which few if any stories have achieved. Or maybe that’s just me.

Robert L. Forward (1932-08-15–2002-09-21)

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

Forward’s best short fiction is probably the sequel to his second-best (“Acceleration Constant” and “The Singing Diamond,” respectively) but I wanted to review just one story. This one ran in the Probability Zero department and is thus a far-fetched (though sound) gimmick/joke that’s hard to describe without ruining it. Basically, this uses a bit of science and a bit of humor to explain why “there are no millionaires on Xanax,” and we might do worse than to adopt their standard.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-08-20–1937-03-15)

“The Strange High House in the Mist” (Weird Tales, October 1931)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-30 review of Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies.

This is more of a fantasy than horror. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach.

Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

Birthday Reviews: Emshwiller, Kelly, McDevitt, Sterling

This week brings an overload of birthdays and an overload of great stories with a singing bug, morally challenging alien dinosaurs, a universe created in a lab, and a society exploiting Time with the help of Mongol hordes on Harleys. And, unlike last week’s, none are in series and all are brand-spankin’ new (well, okay, not older than thirty-five years).

Carol Emshwiller (1921-04-12–2019-02-02)

“Moon Songs” (The Start of the End of It All, 1990)

Whenever I rave about Carol Emshwiller, her story “Pelt” usually leads the parade but this time I thought I’d focus on a different story. She has dozens of brilliant tales but the one I’m going to talk about now is “Moon Songs,” in which the narrator looks back on the interrelations between the person he was at the time, his sister, the world, and art and beauty. Oh, and the ugly, crippled bug they found which sang the middle of what seemed like a beautiful song when it was pricked. The narrator, at the time of the main story, was a physically unimpressive and weak-willed young boy in the thrall of his older and beautiful, but awkward and unpopular, sister. She wanted to be popular or famous or something remarkable and the boy got increasingly disturbed as she became increasingly infatuated with the mite and used and abused it to pretend its abilities were her own. The climax is powerful and the denouement disorienting.

As with essentially all Emshwiller stories I’ve read, the characters are complex and compelling, especially internally. The prose seems natural but is carefully controlled, avoiding plainness or the faux arts. The observations are profound and connect with me despite not being anything I’d observe on my own. I think that’s what I like best about Emshwiller: she’s an unpretentious artist who quietly communicates her visions in a way that even one who’s ordinarily interested in other things can’t fail to notice.

James Patrick Kelly (1951-04-11)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” (Asimov’s, June 1995)

By 2069, the alien Hanen (nicknamed “dinosaurs”) have arrived and allow humans access to the technology they operate which gives us the stars: matter transmission and wormhole beams, basically. However, we’re on a sort of probation and need to behave according to the dinos’ sense of ethics which involves balancing the equations: no creating armies of yourself with the scanners to take over the universe or anything. This would seem like a simple task but it’s not, even under ordinary circumstances. Michael Burr assists the dinos by helping humans make the transition and is guiding Kamala Shastri through the process which will take her to Gend where she can learn to grow artificial eyes for the blind. When something goes wrong, he finds that it’s even more complex and difficult than he’d ever imagined.

This tale references Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” but knowing that one isn’t required to get the vast majority of the powerful effect of this and, if you’re a fan of that era of SF, it might even be helpful if you don’t compare them too much. Taken by itself, this tale is perfectly structured, with a brief frame in the present surrounding the bulk of the story set at Kamala’s departure. Both human characters are given the foreground and made deftly, economically real but the three aliens are also sharply sketched individuals. The science and fiction is perfectly blended to satisfy wiring diagram and literary readers alike. The narrative is initially interesting and ratchets up rapidly and convincingly into something jaw-droppingly, pulse-poundingly bizarre and emotionally and intellectually engaging.

Jack McDevitt (1935-04-14)

“Act of God” (Microcosms, 2004)

I couldn’t let Jack McDevitt’s birthday go by without wishing him happy birthday because I’ve enjoyed so many of his novels so much (including The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, and the Alex Benedict novels) but didn’t have a whole lot of stories to choose from because I’ve never been able to get one of his collections (they aren’t exactly available in affordable mass market paperbacks). Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot to choose from to find good ones.

In this tale, the reader hears one half of a dialog between a distraught scientist and a skeptical friend as the former tells the latter about how he came to be involved in a scientific experiment to create a Little Bang which produced a universe in another dimension. He then relates all the (bad) things that happened to his coworkers and what he thinks is the reason. This is an economical (and somewhat funny) story which is a fine addition to the “scientist/god bottle-universe” subgenre.

Bruce Sterling (1954-04-14) & Lewis Shiner

“Mozart in Mirrorshades” (Omni, September 1985)

I wonder if there is, ironically, an alternate history where, instead of a boring old The Difference Engine with William Gibson and its ensuing dull steampunk, we got an expanded version of this and, I dunno, “powderpunk” or something took over instead. Because, this, ladies and social justice warriors, is how you make your critiques of imperialism! You do it with humor, verve, excitement, and sneaky nuance within your strong satire!

In “Realtime,” people have figured out how to go back in time and drain resources from the past, forking them up so that the wrecked world goes spinning off on its own alternate timeline and Realtime gets all the benefits. So Rice is in charge of the 18th century job where we see Mozart and Thomas Jefferson being exploited. But this story doesn’t forget to have a self-sufficient plot as Rice gets lost in an extended debauch with Marie Antoinette, a soft-hearted co-worker starts a local insurrection which threatens the project, Mozart schemes to get a Green Card (taken to Realtime) where he wants to be a pop star, and all hell breaks loose. This brings on the Gray Card Army (alternate crossovers) such as one of Genghis Khan’s generals riding a Harley, who does things like jamming a machine pistol into Mozart’s nose and saying, “I put my gun on rock and roll, there nothing left of you but ears, man.” Not to mention stray notes thrown off like sparks from a dragging muffler such as “a six year old Napoleon munching Dubble Bubble in Corsica.” But, while a secondary character in a lot of ways, Mozart in his mirrorshades is an indelible, brilliant image and he also provides some of the nuance to the tale. Great stuff.

Birthday Reviews: Barnes, Pangborn, Sturgeon

In terms of authors, “Happy birthday!” In terms of their stories, “Happy doomsday!” Here’s an apocalyptic triptych (though only one features full frontal nullity).

John Barnes (1957-02-28)

“My Advice to the Civilized” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1990)

In the near future, a few years after civilization has collapsed, a former historian and current sergeant in a Company gets ready for battle with an invading, sadistic, murderous, barbarian Horde and writes a letter to the future. Through this letter, we learn something of what happened, what is happening, and what will happen while we mostly get a half-dozen bits of advice which the historian expands upon in a reflective and heartfelt way, thinking heavily upon the loves of his life.

The relatively minor flaw in this story, for me, is its present-tense narration which is rarely a good idea and especially not here. If I’ve been writing a letter, get interrupted, and have returned to the letter afterward, I don’t write “I sit down to write more.” The far more important strengths are the strange believability of a strangely inexplicable collapse of civilization, how the civilized grow more barbaric in response to barbarism, the complex attitude toward both civilization and barbarism (with civilization clearly the favorite), and an interesting effect from its incomplete ending which can be read as completely tragic or somewhat hopeful depending on where you stop in your own continuation of the story. This is also (as it would often be) a timely story.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-02-25–1976-02-01)

“The Red Hills of Summer” (F&SF, September 1959)

After humanity has wrecked Earth, three hundred humans have fled in a spaceship (possibly one of a few) and has found a new world to attempt to colonize. Four people are chosen to go down and test its suitability before the rest may join them. A quiet religious woman, a high-strung and odd political theorist, a fairly ordinary guy (our narrator) and his wife descend to the planet’s surface. What follows is quite a bit of action as the group establishes a landing site, deals with the native life (none sentient but some quite dangerous), and with each other, mixed with some contemplation on why Earth went wrong and whether this world will, too.

There is often a divide between the usually sharp, pragmatic, literal, but sometimes thin “hard SF” and the sometimes deep, philosophical, metaphorical but usually fuzzy “literary SF” that I wish were bridged more often and better. I don’t recall having read Pangborn before (though I’ve certainly heard of him because Gardner Dozois was such a fan [1]) and I’d assumed he was pretty far into the literary territory but this story, at least, is a very nice blend. I do think the story has a couple of flaws (it obtains some of its conflict by having an implausibly poorly planned and executed mission and there is a moment of great tension for the characters at the end which depends on what immediately feels like overreaction so that the tension feels forced for the reader) and I wish “literary SF” didn’t so often depend on ruined Earths but this was generally a very good story which a variety of readers are likely to appreciate.

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-02-26–1985-05-08)

“The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (F&SF, October 1949)

On the planet Lihrt, a gwik creates a disturbance which causes a lab to be deserted which allows a young hurkle (a gwik pet) to unwittingly modify a gizmo and then accidentally fall into it, which results in the hurkle materializing on Earth. It disturbs a classroom, causing a very level-headed (but inexpert) teacher to try to deal with it, which results in a great change for both humanity and the hurkle.

This is told in an almost fairy-tale way which usually annoys me. In this case, it doesn’t, because this is a very funny (though also dark) story in which the “mimsy were the borogroves” methodology is put to great (and sometimes risque) use as we’re told how life went on after the disturbance at Lihrt and the gwik still “fardled, funted and fupped.” Sturgeon was one of the best and could do all sorts of stories from hard SF to fantasy to mainstream and from comedy to tragedy to horror. This particular one may not be his most momentous, but it’s entertaining.


[1] And I’ve got a couple of Pangborn’s books in the Pile, mostly on the strength of that.