Birthday Reviews: Howard, MacLean, Merritt, Moore, Poe, Steele

This final installment of the weekly Birthday Reviews brings us another six-pack from a large birthday gang (of a large week[1]) and these fall in pairs: two reprints from earlier reviews, two reviews of colorful debuts, and two phobic tales from Allan and Allen, the birthday boys of the nineteenth.


Robert E. Howard (1906-01-22/1936-06-11)

“Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938)

[Adapted from my 2019-10-30 review of Margulies’ anthology Weird Tales.]

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. Still, that prosaic opening and initially very basic horror, straightforward narrative and stylistic approach, and skillfully joined antebellum relics and imported voodoo combine to make this effective for a likely majority of readers. Highly recommended.

Katherine MacLean (1925-01-22/2019-09-01)

“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, November 1958)

[Adapted from my 2017-08-29 review of her collection The Trouble with You Earth People.]

“Unhuman Sacrifice” deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.


A. Merritt (1884-01-20/1943-08-21)

“Through the Dragon Glass” (All-Story Weekly, November 24, 1917)

A. Merritt made his debut with this Sehnsucht story which involves one man telling his friend of his amazing experiences with a supernatural “dragon glass” which has a triple layer of the glass itself, the compelling world within (or through) it, and the sort of gnostic foundation interpenetrating and encompassing that. It actually lacks a truly satisfying dramatic arc but is filled with enticing glimmers of substance in its colorful description.

C. L. Moore (1911-01-24/1987-04-04)

“Shambleau” (Weird Tales, November 1933)

C. L. Moore made her debut with a very different, but equally colorful story. Northwest Smith is a sort of anti-hero of the spaceways who rescues an alien girl from a multi-species Martian mob bent on destroying her. He finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her but, after a night of strange dreams, he experiences a night (and nights) of erotic pleasure and horrific revulsion and learns that old myths have their roots in reality. This story is crisply plotted until an overlong denouement throws things a little out of proportion and ends the powerful blending of disparate psychosexual elements with a sort of sputtering effect until recapturing some of the momentum at the very end and it’s odd in that Northwest Smith is introduced as a mover and shaker of a main character, yet he takes a backseat first to the girl and then to another character. Also, while not a structural problem, there’s a sort of puritan streak running through this one despite its amoral complacency about Smith’s extra-legal activities. All that aside, this is an extremely vividly imagined and memorable tale of great intensity and rightly made Moore immediately famous.


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-01-19/1849-10-07)

“The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1846)

This is a good example of Poe’s theory of the short story in which everything is directed toward producing a single effect. This doesn’t mean that everything is monotone but, rather, that a great variety of things can be deployed as long as they have the same vector and accumulate power. The premise is simply that a once rich and/or powerful man has been wronged by one who is still rich and/or powerful and, having received an insult of some kind on top of these injuries, has formulated his revenge and exacts it in the story. The plan is clever and insanely forceful. Examples of the variety of elements (mostly twistedly funny) are the way the narrator ensures he will not be bothered by servants, the victim saying he won’t die of a cough (which is more true than he realizes) coupled with the bit about masons and the trowel, the discussion of the coat of arms and, perhaps best of all, the screaming scene. This is a masterful piece of black humor and ironic art.

Allen Steele (1958-01-19)

“The War Memorial” (Asimov’s, September 1995)

Allen Steele shares a birthday and (almost) a name with Poe but doesn’t generally share much else, generally writing somewhat optimistic fiction which is often literally light years removed from the gothic, but this example of “anti-military SF” has some unusual similarities with the preceding one. The protagonist is fighting a battle on the moon, encounters some serious technical difficulties with his combat armor, and eventually contributes to an unusual “war memorial.” This is a much more sober tale but is also short, powerfully focused, dark, and effective.

[1] I started this in 2020, which was a 366-day year and 52 weeks only covers 364 days, so this last installment covers nine days (I should have posted it yesterday). Ironically, the birthdays only kick in on the nineteenth, so only cover the last six of those nine. In that sense, it’s a short week.

Review: Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele

Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele
Hardcover: Tor, 978-0-7653-8218-4, $26.99, 300pp, April 2017
Tradepaper: Tor, 978-0-7653-8219-1, $16.99, 300pp, April 2018?

Avengers of the Moon is Allen Steele’s authorized addition to the Captain Future tales, the originals of which were a pulp series almost entirely written by Edmond Hamilton, often under the “house name” Brett Sterling, which is to say that these were mass-produced adventures for mostly young readers with no pretensions to art or scientific rigor. That said, I’ve read one of the novels (plus a novelette) and, compared to expectations, found them to be surprisingly skillfully crafted, imaginative, and entertaining works which were enjoyable in their context.

This version is “an effort to bring Captain Future into the twenty-first century for a new generation of readers.” [1] Unfortunately, as I indicated, I’m no expert on the full history of Captain Future and his Futuremen or on the nature of the changes. I can tell that the story is set in the twenty-fourth century, and the busy solar system is preserved by having Mars undergo terraforming while it and other worlds are populated with a mix of baseline humans (who must wear protective gear) and bioengineered humans. While older SF had several examples of competent women, I suspect that the degree to which Joan Randall is made a competent police officer may also be a tweak. However, certain things are unchanged or emphasized the other way: the plot is a melodramatic thriller and the villains are as black-hatted as any.

As related in the second section of the novel, twenty years before its main action, the parents of Curt Newton got involved with a businessman named Victor Corvo. They wanted to create androids and he wanted an army of slaves. When they discovered their goals weren’t compatible, the parents went into hiding along with their infant son, Curt Newton, and their aged mentor, Simon Wright, and the businessman started hunting them. Arriving at the moon, Wright died but his brain was preserved in a drone’s “body” while the android that had been intended to receive his brain developed a mind of its own and acquired the name Otho. Meanwhile, impressed by the oddly intelligent robot, Grag, they acquired it. Corvo found them and killed the parents and believed he’d wiped out their base on the moon but the three strange entities survived to raise Curt Newton. Newton’s mission in life, as designed by Wright and initially unknown to Newton, is to avenge his parents’ murders by dealing with Corvo. The story opens with Curt and Otho making a rare excursion from their hidden base where Curt first lays eyes on Corvo, who has since become a Senator of the Solar Coalition and is hosting the President, and Newton is later told his true backstory. Curt resolves to continue on his life’s journey so makes his plans and, with the help of Grag and the others, sneaks into Corvo’s compound on the moon to assassinate him. However, it turns out that there is a bigger plot afoot which leads to yet a bigger plot and then an even larger scale, without ever losing sight of Newton and Corvo. All this is complicated and modified by Newton’s meeting Joan Randall (at the same event in which he saw Corvo) and their subsequent, usually strained and awkward, interactions. Without giving anything away, there is much derring-do, lots of neat gizmos, overheard conversations, fights, a cult, and a suitably climactic climax.

The conflict, plot, and edifying message are in keeping with Captain Future and, if it’s not already obvious, this makes Captain Future somewhat resistant to being molded into something suitable for the twenty-first century and a new generation of readers if those readers aren’t going to respond to the originals anyway. The discomfort Newton incessantly has with the name “Captain Future” reads like a “signal from Fred” [2] and, I think, is an example of what has the novel fall between two stools, neither able to distance itself from the originals sufficiently to be “modern” (as Steele did in his original metafictional take in the novella “The Death of Captain Future,” which he himself calls “satirical”) nor able to embrace it fully to attain the full innocent joy it might. Also, I prefer science fiction which moves forward and am tired of “origin stories” and prequels, especially ones that are as Batman-like in backstory and as Bond-like in execution (Newton at one point even calls himself “Newton. Curt Newton”). [3] Further, the origin story slows the opening portions of the book, not just in the flashback section but in all the exposition necessary early on. Finally, the aspects of one rescue in space and of the conclusion aren’t the logically tightest. All that said, while I have to give this a mixed review, I really did enjoy it despite its difficulties. One might wonder why, in this context, Newton is the “leader,” especially as he’s not always as competent as one would like (and in at least one part with the Martian woman, N’Rala, is downright stupid) but he does win the reader’s sympathy. Joan is also attractive, the Futuremen trade some of their simple charms for more complex ones, and the tale, however familiar, grows to be fun and exciting. Basically, I’d only warn off people looking for a pure masterpiece or for whom this just doesn’t sound interesting on the face of it, or for whom any tweak to the beloved original would offend them. If you’re unfamiliar with the originals and this sounds like fun to you or you’re a fan of Captain Future who doesn’t mind some modest, mostly technological, tweaks, you will probably enjoy this. [4]

[1] This is quoted from Steele’s “Afterword” on page 297, in which he relates his first experience with Captain Future, some of his subsequent writing on the subject, and his research and approach to this book.

As far as references within the book, this is as good a place as any to mention some I recall: Obviously, Burroughs’ fiction is explicitly referenced, Leigh Brackett (the great SF writer and wife of Captain Future’s creator) is eloquently honored in a ship name, and Wells appears as the name of a city (or something like). “The Search for the Magician” may be a nod to Asimov’s “The Search for the Mule” (though it may be to any number of searches). And the section title “Fire on the Mountain,” being familiar with Steele, is likely a direct reference to the Grateful Dead.

[2] According to the Turkey City [writer’s workshop] Lexicon, edited by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling, a “signal from Fred” was coined by Damon Knight and is “[a] comic form of the ‘Dischism’ in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘This is really boring.’ ‘This sounds like a bad movie.'”

[3] Another thing this book reminds me of is the series of Digby Allen juvenile/YA space adventures written by Joseph Greene at the turn of the 1960s (not to be confused with the Joseph Green of the Conscience Interplanetary tales at the turn of the 1970s). The original Captain Future tales seemed to me to have a more freelance sort of mentality while equally red-haired and young Dig Allen would seem more at home in this world of prominently featured hierarchical organizations such as the Interplanetary Police Force and Solar Coalition Guard.

[4] While the book is suitable for all ages, I think any young people who aren’t on top of the world right now might especially enjoy it.

That also makes me want to digress on part of why recent attacks on science fiction, especially classic science fiction, from people, especially privileged people (usually with college degrees and who make a reasonable to an unreasonably large amount of money, usually not doing physical labor) about science fiction being of, for, and by “the privileged” make me so angry. Science fiction has always been of, for and by the misfits, which this book does a good job of illustrating. Yes, Curt is presumably white. And an orphan growing up in isolation whose parents and friends are a brain in a box, an android, and a robot, all of whom are initially treated by others as weird or repulsive or stupid. Yet they are the heroes.

Top Ten Most-Read “Recent” Authors

Two weeks ago, inspired by another blogger’s post, I posted my Top Ten Most-Read Authors. That list was heavily weighted to older authors with the only post-New Waver being C. J. Cherryh, who broke into print in 1976. I was curious what newer authors were being eclipsed by the older so I compiled a second “top 10” list just like the first except limited to authors who broke into print no earlier than 1976. (Ties are broken by giving the higher place to people who haven’t been in print as long.)

10. Rudy Rucker (8)

Rucker is a gonzo math freak who writes like Lewis Padgett smoked Lewis Carroll’s ashes. My favorite Rucker is probaby Master of Space and Time, though White Light, Spacetime Donuts, and Software are all quite good. The last of those became the first volume of his most famous series but the Ware series suffers from an extreme case of diminishing returns. I haven’t kept up with him beyond the occasional story which he can still knock out of the park, especially in collaboration.

09. Alastair Reynolds (8)

Reynolds writes mostly gothic noir neo-space opera. He’s a funny case for me. He got a 10-year contract for 10 novels for 10 million bucks or something but I like his short fiction. I love Zima Blue as well as the Revelation Space collections Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North. I read three of the first four novels in that universe and they’re okay but the last one’s been sitting unread for years. (Someday!) Also read Pushing Ice and I love all of it but the two main characters whom I hate. (I’m counting Slow Bullets as a book, though it’s just a novella. If I didn’t, there’d be a three-way tie at tenth place with seven books by him, Stephen Baxter and Lisa Goldstein.)

08. Greg Egan (9)

Greg Egan writes the hardest of hard SF – so hard he comes out the other side, sometimes inventing entire universes which have nothing to do with this one and can thus be seen as a species of incredibly rigorous fantasy. But, seriously, when he operates in this universe, he’s incredible. He excels at short fiction and long. My favorites are probably Axiomatic for short fiction and Diaspora for novels. He ranks much, much higher than his eighth place showing here. More like in the top handful of all time.

07. Neal Asher (9)

Neal Asher is another New Space Opera guy, with a particularly action-packed and violent style. I’m crazy about Prador Moon and he’s also rightly famous for the core quintet of “Agent Cormac” Polity books, of which The Line of Polity (#2) is my favorite. Not shabby at the stories, either. “Alien Archaeology” turned me into a fan.

06. Timothy Zahn (10)

And, believe it or not, none of the ten are media-ties. My favorite is probably his novel Spinneret but he’s a perhaps surprisingly good story writer, too. Aside from Star Wars books, he’s probably most famous for the Cobra books. I’ve read the original trilogy and it’s a mixture of mostly good with a trace of silly. I think his Blackcollar books (read the original two) are actually better, but they haven’t had as much success. He’s basically just a good old-fashioned story-teller of mostly space/military tales. Kind of surprised it turns out I’ve read so many, especially given that there are still more in the To-Be-Read Pile.

05. Jack McDevitt (10)

McDevitt is another story-teller. I very nearly read only one McDevitt, starting and ending with The Engines of God, which is a book in the Academy series which didn’t do anything for me. But I had A Talent for War, also, and read it and liked it. I went ahead with the belated sequel to it and it turned into a sort of comfy, cozy SF-archaeological-mystery series which seems to have run its course but was really enjoyable, overall. I also was surprised to enjoy Eternity Road. I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic tales but that one was captivating. His first novel (of first contact), The Hercules Text, is even better. I’ve only read that in its revised version but the original is now in the Pile.

04. Allen Steele (10)

Another space-based story-teller. His debut novel, Orbital Decay, is probably still his masterpiece, along with Sex and Violence in Zero-G. The latter is a collection of stories set in the same Near Space universe as that debut novel and its sequels. Steele is now probably most famous for his Coyote series but, other than reading the start of it in the magazines and some later stories in various places and diving into Hex (glorious BDO but unfortunately with small dumb characters) I haven’t read it (it’s in the Pile).

03. Charles Sheffield (11)

An English science guy who came to America, took up SF writing, and married fellow SF writer Nancy Kress. Between the Strokes of Night (original version; haven’t read the revised one) is a “cosmogony opera” and one of my all-time favorite books and The Compleat McAndrew (sequence of stories about a brilliant scientist zipping through the solar system) is right near it. He’s written many books only slightly above or below “okay” but when he’s good, he’s among the best.

02. Bruce Sterling (14)

Another one of my very favorites and the greatest cyberpunk. His debut novel is still(!) in the Pile and I lost track of him after 2009 as he’s become relatively scarce but every novel and collection from 1980 to 1999 (with one caveat) is essential. From the next decade, I only really enjoyed The Zenith Angle, though Zeitgeist has its points and Visionary in Residence might be a great collection except in comparison with the first three. The caveat is The Difference Engine. This was a hugely important book in the history of steampunk and unites the biggest names in cyberpunk but I was very unimpressed (and haven’t enjoyed the steampunk movement either). But enough of that – for some highlights of the early period, his 80s neo-space-operatic Shaper/Mechanist stories (found in Crystal Express) and his novel in that universe (Schismatrix, which can also be found together with the stories in Schismatrix Plus) are fantastic. His first three collections (Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future) are indispensable, up there with early Zelazny, Tiptree, and Varley collections. He not only engages with high-tech near-future reality as his forte but he’s a stylist of the finest sort – everything is stamped with Sterling qualities but reads with Crystalline clarity and Express speed.

01. Jack Campbell (15)

Mmm…kay. This is weird. Jack Campbell (whom I first met as John G. Hemry in the pages of Analog) shows at #1 because he wrote a fifteen-book series (the Lost Fleet/Stars series, built out of two and a half sub-series of Lost Fleet, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and Lost Stars) and I bought and devoured the whole thing. Gigantic series of best-selling military space opera are not generally my thing but Campbell’s mixing of hard SF elements into wild-eyed space opera and his solidly centrist and sensible military, political, and social textures (which address 9/11, infinite war, becoming one’s own enemy, etc.) really sold me, along with his meticulously described space battles. Granted, it starts shaky and has some awkwardness in character interactions throughout but the things were just compulsively readable. He’s the only author on this list with nothing in the Pile, as I read everything the minute I bought it. He’s not up there with the likes of Egan and Sterling, but he delivers good clean honest entertainment that I enjoyed a lot.