Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

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Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.

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Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

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Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.


* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).

Review of The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate

My first article for Black Gate was just published.

Lester del Rey was born in Minnesota in 1915 and died in 1993. One of his boldest fictions was claiming that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes, when it was actually Leonard Knapp. However, it was his other fictions, beginning in 1938 for Astounding, and his work as an editor, a reviewer, and in a literary agency, which resulted in his being made a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1991.

Full review at Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”

Review of Solarpunk for Tangent

Solarpunk is composed of Brazilian stories from 2012 which aim to deal with green energy and ecology. The preface cites Le Guin, Callenbach, and Robinson as exemplars but notes that Brazilian green energy is not necessarily seen as an issue of the Left or as a good thing. It also notes that these stories are not as utopian as many on similar topics. My reading confirms this, as only a couple touch on things which are obviously political to this American and are often quite dark.

Full “Special Double Review” (Chuck Rothman and I both review this) at Tangent: Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro.

Twenty-Eight Offbeat Science Fiction Books

Inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s “10 Essential Offbeat Science Fiction Novels,” I thought I’d add some (eighteen) of my favorite weirder books (aiming for novels but ending up with a couple of omnibi and a couple of novella-duos).

Alternate Realities (2000) by C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is known for gritty realism more than being offbeat but this omnibus contains her oddest, most experimental novels. Wave Without a Shore (1981) is a personal favorite, about art, philosophy, and invisible people, but the Arthurian spaceship of Port Eternity (1982) and the alien mentalities conveyed by odd typography in Voyager in Night (1984) are also interesting.

Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller. Feminist trapeze dogs only start the surrealist meltdown which is nevertheless quite pointed.

The City Not Long After (1989) by Pat Murphy. Like her Californian compatriot, Lisa Goldstein (see below), Murphy writes a somewhat hopeful tale of surrealist revolution.

The Dead Trilogy (1998) by Richard Calder. This set of novels from 1992, 1994, and 1996 are somewhat like Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale in that I ordinarily have little patience for ultra-dense “style” books and this isn’t even about orgasmic starships but, rather, about sorts of sex dolls. A truly bizarre set but one which drew me in and kept me involved—an honest lunacy rather than just outre for outre‘s sake.

Divide and Rule (1948) by L. Sprague de Camp. I’m cheating here (and not for the only time) with a book composed of two novellas (“Divide and Rule” (1939), “The Stolen Dormouse” (1941)) but when people joust in the future and “kangaroos” ride motorcycles, category is a secondary consideration.

Dracula in Love (1979) by John Shirley. Almost every book Shirley’s written could be on this list, especially those around this time: Transmaniacon, Three-Ring Psychus, City Come A-Walkin’, etc. I don’t even remember this one that well but I’m listing it because I just remember thinking this danced on a sharper razor’s edge of “terrible” and “brilliant” than any of his other works. I can’t even remember if this is accurate but it’s the kind of thing that sounds right—from a two-star review from Goodreads: “The adventures of a vampire in love and his living, prehensile penis with yellow glowing eyes.

The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein. “Everyone switch drinks!” Lisa Goldstein romps through time with surrealism and revolution always at the forefront. The evocation of the genuine surrealists of France in the 20s and the events of the 60s are particularly good but, unbound, she includes a futuristic component, as well.

The Green Millennium (1953) by Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber has done it all. Straight SF, fantasy (ranging from sword & sorcery to practically inventing urban), horror, humor, non-fiction, etc. In this one, an almost Phildickian protagonist meets a green cat and things just get weirder from there. This is a particularly offbeat book because it’s not written in an avant-garde style and isn’t artsy-surreal but is a tough, gritty noir sort of book – with fluffy kitties and farcical humor.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) by Jonathan Lethem. Speaking of noir: gun-toting, cigarette-smoking kangaroos.

Knight of Delusions (1982, revised from Night of Delusions (1972)) by Keith Laumer. Yet another book with noir traces. I hesitated to include this because I re-read it not too many eons ago and it seemed much more repetitive and less mind-blowing than I recalled but it was still plenty weird and I include it just for that first mind-blowing experience. The cover with the fish and the alien lighting the protagonist’s cigarette convey a lot but not the twists and turns and funhouse mirrors and inversions and…

Norstrilia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith. Everything in Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe is offbeat, with uplifted animals suffering Kierkegaardian spiritual angst in a Sino-Romanesque future. This is the only novel set in that universe, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968). Stroon!

The Paradox Men (1953, aka Flight into Yesterday) by Charles L. Harness. I suppose this isn’t especially offbeat but is just a good old-fashioned van Vogtian adventure in time and space but, again, that’s plenty weird enough. This is another book which I enjoyed very much on a re-read but not as much as the first time. The first time, this probably came closer to making my head explode than any other book.

Rogue Ship (1965) by A. E. van Vogt. Like Shirley, most everything this wildman wrote could go on this list, especially The World of Null-A), but something about folded-up paper-thin spacemen frozen in time sort of sticks out. (This is fixed up from the 1950 title story (aka “The Twisted Men”—arguably all that’s required), 1947’s “Centaurus II,” and 1963’s “The Expendables.”)

The Solarians (1966) by Norman Spinrad. Like Shirley and van Vogt, most of Spinrad’s works qualify. He’s written a science fiction novel as though it were written by Hitler and others about hippies after an apocalypse, starships powered by orgasms, the power of the media in politics, mind-control cults, and mass-movement networked electronic voting… wait. Something about those last three… Anyway, I pick this one just because it’s like somebody gave John W. Campbell, Jr. a giant bag of Acapulco Gold. One of the most bizarre collisions of the Golden Age and New Wave I’ve witnessed. Harlan Ellison, in an otherwise complimentary piece about Spinrad, described this book as “so bad it cannot be read.” Spinrad’s first professional publication appeared in Campbell’s Analog but, if Campbell read the novel, I don’t doubt that he agreed. But, to me, it’s bad in a good way.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick. Y’know… PKD. Nuff said. Tough to pick the most offbeat but, damn…

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen (1951) by Henry Kuttner (as by Lewis Padgett). Kuttner wrote plenty of offbeat stuff from drunken amnesiac inventors to hyper-accelerated evolved cats but when “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1947) opens with “He knew it was a dream when he shot Carolyn through the head. But not until then,” it’s a sign of the Cold War paranoia to come and “The Fairy Chessmen” (1946) immediately tops it with “The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.” The latter is not just the weirder, but also the better, story of the two.

What Mad Universe (1949) by Fredric Brown. SF is real. Oh, the comedy! Oh, the horror! Dark, sharp-edged satire.

Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth. Speaking of satire, few of Pohl and Kornbluth’s works are ordinary and everyone should read The Space Merchants. In terms of this list, a case could be made for Gladiator-at-Law but I feel like the wider scope and sense of mystery (Pyramids have carted the Earth out of the solar system) of the basically non-satirical Wolfbane make it offbeat even compared to their other works.


Note: I’m not going to redo this to include a nineteenth title but between writing and posting, I’ve realized I failed to include any one  of White Light (1980), Spacetime Donuts (1981), Master of Space and Time (1984), or most anything else Rudy Rucker’s written. If I left those off, there’s no telling what else I left off. And, of course, there are authors I haven’t even read (books of) who presumably have very offbeat volumes such as R. A. Lafferty. So I hope this list has lots of good and weird stuff but, in terms of comprehensiveness, it ain’t very. Feel free to add more in the comments or write your own blog posts to help fill it out.

Review: The Golem of Deneb Seven by Alex Shvartsman

The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories
by Alex Shvartsman

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Date: 2018-03-16 (Amazon)/2018-04-03 (ISFDB)
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 978-1986220613
Pages: 266
Price: $15.99 (Amazon)
Publisher: UFO Publishing

Contents:

  • “The Golem of Deneb Seven”
  • “A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love”
  • “Burying Treasure”
  • “Nouns of Nouns: A Mini Epic”
  • “Whom He May Devour”
  • “Letting Go”
  • “The Fiddle Game”
  • “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Monsters”
  • “Islands in the Sargasso”
  • “Catalogue of Items in the Chess Exhibition at the Humanities Museum, Pre-Enlightenment Wing”
  • “Fifteen Minutes”
  • “Masquerade Night”
  • “The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague”
  • “Golf to the Death”
  • “Staff Meeting, as Seen by the Spam Filter”
  • “Invasive Species”
  • “One in a Million”
  • “Grains of Wheat”
  • “The Ganthu Eggs”
  • “The Practical Guide to Punching Nazis”
  • “Dante’s Unfinished Business”
  • “Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare”
  • “How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the World”
  • “He Who Watches”
  • “Recall Notice”
  • “Dreidel of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah”
  • “Die, Miles Cornbloom”
  • “A Man in an Angel Costume”
  • “Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long”
  • “Parametrization of Complex Weather Patterns for Two Variables”
  • “The Race for Arcadia”

Depending on your inclination, the table of contents may not be so exciting or forbidding as it appears. Seventeen of the thirty-one stories are inarguably flash (less than one thousand words) and four more are less than two thousand. About a third of all lengths are clearly intended to be humorous, albeit sometimes darkly so, while the more serious nature of the other two thirds ranges from light to dark. Almost three-fifths are science fiction of one sort or another and the rest are fantasy except for one non-speculative story. Most of the stories were published in Galaxy’s Edge (those tending to be longer and better), IGMS (longer, lesser), Nature (shorter, better), and Daily SF (shorter, lesser).

The humorous fantasy flash or near-flash includes tales of metafictional satire (“Noun of Nouns,” “Seven Habits”) and Lovecraftian spoofs (“Cthulhu Chanukah.” “Recall Notice”), while the more serious ones include a magical con job (“Fiddle Game”), a non-magical con job crossed with a divinatory love story (“Future Fragments”), a biter-bit (“Forty-Seven Dictums”), a sort of demonic inverted “It’s a Terrible Life” (“Angel Costume”), and a surreal fantastic fable (“Poet-Kings”). I have problems with several of these, such as “Seven Habits” reading like a weak echo of “The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord,” but most simply may or may not appeal to a given reader. My favorite was “Recall Notice,” in which letters from librarians of Miskatonic University tell the tale of Lovecraft the Third using Grandpa’s library card to check out things like “Preparing an Occult Ritual in Ten Easy Steps, Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Issue, Properly Pronouncing Your Invocations: Audio book on CD” and others to raise hell on earth.

Oddly, the shorter SF stories are more serious. They deal with alien invasions of varying sorts (“Catalogue of Items,” “Invasive Species”), nuclear apocalypse (“He Who Watches”), an omniverse quantum magic story (“One in a Million”), various sorts of love stories (mixed with weather control hacktivists in “Parametrization;” with time travel in “Letting Go”; with AIs in “Perfect Medium”). Three more AI pieces involve a couple of AIs in a depopulated solar system trying to figure out how to save Earth from a natural disaster (“Gaia and the Guardian”), a spam filter “becoming” sentient in a story which seems like it ought to be funny but unsuccessfully goes dark (“Staff Meeting”) and a person who feels tormented by an AI in a story which seems dark but very successfully goes for black comedy (“Fifteen Minutes”). The two science fictional revenge fantasies include another time travel listory (“Practical Guide”), while the much better one (“Grains of Wheat”) is a thoughtful look at business and medicine. The average quality of the SF may edge the fantasy though “Letting Go” is so contrived (and second person, present tense) and “Practical Guide” is so insufficiently transmuted by art that they don’t help the average. On the other hand, “Grains of Wheat” is transmuted by art and “Fifteen Minutes” is superb. Even some of the more middling pieces have some really nice elements such as the depictions of the Europans in “Gaia and the Guardian” and the clever methods of encoding messages in “Perfect Medium.”

Moving to the longer short stories, “Die, Miles Cornbloom” is an oddity in that it’s so weird it feels almost fantastic but isn’t. Miles and his pal are living their humdrum lives except that Miles has somehow acquired a stalker who has moved up to death threats. As the story progresses, so does the danger and then a twist occurs. It’s not a perfect story but it was effectively tense while managing a bit of lightness and worked for me.

The actual fantasies include another metafictional satire which takes issue with the economics of fantasy in “Burying Treasure” and the posthumous fantasy and unconvincing anti-pot diatribe, “Dante’s Unfinished Business.” Much more successful is “Masquerade Night” which uses the familiar motif of gods whose powers have waned along with their followers but creates a very powerful, creepy, and weird feel. It tells of a cat-god encountering a beautiful woman in the masquerades which allow the worlds of the humans and gods to barely, dangerously touch through the mediums of their disguises. The story is set in the 1920s and, indeed, feels like one of the good old-fashioned Weird Tales.

The longer science fiction pieces include the collection’s only novelette, “Islands in the Sargasso,” which is an installment in the shared-world series of “The Sargasso Containment” that Galaxy’s Edge ran from 2014-2016. Readers might benefit from being familiar with some of the other stories but I think this stands alone fairly well and is a pretty solid space opera which handles its drugs (a science fictional “Rust”) more convincingly and ambiguously than “Unfinished Business.” A recovering addict is fleeing from pursuers and must enter the barrier which surrounds the solar system and has previously meant certain death. He awakens on the other side two hundred years later and the scale of the tale broadens significantly. The other short stories include the title story about courage in invasions which isn’t provided by mechanized armor and “Whom He May Devour,” about a young woman dealing with technologically advanced humans encroaching on her religious and backwards world whose sole technology is devoted to preserving their uploaded ancestors. The worst of the short SF is “The Ganthu Eggs” which uses the poor device of a letter from a “mass-murderer” to a warden on behalf of another “mass-murderer” prisoner which depends on an anti-abortion viewpoint and trivializes the issue either way with the letter’s main concern. Along with “Sargasso,” two other tales compensate for that. “The Race for Arcadia” is a pretty good tale about a terminally ill man trying to win a second space race as a Russian competing against Americans and Indians to get to an earth-like world first, with a twist. “Golf to the Death” uses the “champion of the species” framework. In it, a man witnesses a human fight an alien in the aliens’ chosen sport and then must compete in the humans’ chosen sport, but with alien stakes, as they “golf to the death.” Just saying that makes me laugh and the story handles the premise reasonably well.

This is a collection with directly written stories full of familiar elements which for some readers will be a feature and for some a bug. Similarly, some may appreciate the mix of SF & F and of humor and seriousness while some might prefer just peanut butter or just chocolate. However it shakes out for the given reader, I do recommend several (the science fiction of “Fifteen Minutes,” the fantasy of “Masquerade Night,” and the mild suspense of “Die, Miles Cornbloom”) and think several more are notable (“Islands in the Sargasso,” “Golf to the Death,” “Grains of Wheat,” “Recall Notice,” and “The Race for Arcadia”).

Review of Trope-ing the Light Fantastic for Tangent

Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction is a collection of sixteen articles by science and science fiction writer Edward M. Lerner. They were originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact from 2011 to 2016 and have been “integrated, expanded…, and updated” for this book….

Full review at Tangent: Trope-ing the Light Fantastic.

(I reviewed this a month and a half ago but it’s just being published now.)