Birthday Reviews: Lee, Martin, Shiras, Wells

This is another busy week in which we experience a strange incursion into a relic of empire, get involved in an alien cult, meet a superboy, and suffer a cosmic cataclysm.

Tanith Lee (1947-09-19–2015-05-24)

“Into Gold” (IAsfm, March 1986)

Somewhere in the western portions of what had been the Empire, after a freshly fallen Rome, a princeling and his devoted companion are partly estranged when an Eastern caravan arrives, carrying a woman with strange powers. The companion narrates how the princeling developed an immediate lust for the woman and how everyone around him thought well of her as she became his wife and bore him a son, except the companion, himself. When the sorceress goes off with only her child and a single guard, ostensibly to cure a village suffering from disease, he recollects tales of child disfigurement and sacrifice by Easterners and sneaks off to try to prevent any evil she may be up to. Things, naturally, do not turn out as intended by anyone.

This is a richly-told tale full of imaginative sensory descriptions and details. I particularly like its tragic nature. It’s a case of hamartia rather than the characters being black-hatted villains. Their virtues are their flaws. The stoic taciturn surface of people barely keeping lids on bubbling passions is also appealing and well-done. It might have been better told in third-person, though. All tales are inherently artificial and the third-person, often omniscient, narrative approach may be the most artificial of them all but it’s precisely that which allows it to recede into the background, because artifice is most natural within artifice. You can simply say, “Okay, so some omniscient being is telling me this story,” and forget about the mechanics of it. With this tale, you have to constantly wonder how such a man as the narrator could have such wide-ranging information, be so sensuous in his perceptions, and have such a prodigious memory even when, for example, he tells you things about a parchment which depicts many things, including “three figures, judges of the dead from Aegyptus, I would have thought, if I had thought about them…” It’s not that you can’t do a story in first person, obviously – compare the brilliantly done appropriate subjectivity of Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” – but it’s actually a trickier thing to do and even the best authors sometimes unnecessarily strain credibility with it. Still, it’s a powerful and generally effective story with many appealing elements.

George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20)

“A Song for Lya” (Analog, June 1974)

When I started doing these birthday reviews, I was actually looking forward to this long novella from Martin’s science fiction days coming up and re-reading it, but I just don’t feel like I have the time now. Suffice to say, this tale of a loving couple’s experiences with an alien religious cult tackles many powerful themes, including most of those touched on by Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” (“death, love, marriage, boredom, obsession” – just not the boredom) and even more effectively. I recall it being a great story the first time through to my last re-read a few years ago (I guess) and vigorously recommend it.

Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23–1990-12-23)

“In Hiding” (Astounding, November 1948)

When a worried teacher tells a psychiatrist that one of her students seems generally fine but has something a little off about him, the psychiatrist begins a slow process of earning the boy’s trust and finding out what he’s hiding. Since it’s the core of the story and revealed fairly early (and is clear even before officially revealed), it’s no spoiler to say that he’s a tremendously intelligent superboy who has to hide how far ahead he is of everyone else his age, though Shiras holds back a little related material for the end (though it’s given away in the story’s appearance in book form).

In terms of science fiction, this is another John W. Campbell discovery, as this was Shiras’ first sale but her story has a nearly fatal flaw in that there’s little story. You’d think a tale about a boy hiding something would be full of drama but there is only the essential existential conflict without any instances of foreground conflict or any reversals. This, in a way, is a similar treatment of what’s handled by van Vogt in Slan and other such stories and it’s arguably more sophisticated but, while the desire for plotting, conflict, and excitement may be unsophisticated, it’s a desire I won’t hide and this story would have benefited from more of all that. Still, the characterization of the boy, his guardian/grandmother, and the psychiatrist is very well done and the realization of the “super” motif and what it would be like for a person to live among “puppies” is excellent. Because it’s all on a relative scale, it also works in a literal way. When the boy complains that most adults don’t want to learn or understand anything about the world but only preserve their rote attitudes and behavior, it touches on much of what really governs our world.

H. G. Wells (1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

“The Star” (The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897)

In what must have been a very odd Christmas issue, Wells here tells Fritz Leiber’s big novel, The Wanderer (1964), in just a few pages as a rogue planet smashes into Neptune, creating a fiery mass which is called a “star” more in the etymological than astronomical sense. This is all very interesting, at least to some humans (and others) but becomes much more urgent when a mathematician calculates that the star will pass disastrously close to us or perhaps hit us directly in its fall toward the sun. This is all very excitingly told with much imagination and careful selection put into both the astronomical and human elements of the disaster. Some may find the ending turns the story into a sort of bad joke or may find it transforms it in an interesting way (or maybe even a bit of both) but the whole thing certainly makes an impression.

Birthday Reviews: MacLeod, Simak

This week we go back to WWII to struggle with luck and death and we also go forward to the end of the Earth and out beyond the universe to struggle with the Creator.

Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06)

“The Chop Girl” (Asimov’s, December 1999)

chop-girl

World War II is raging. The chop girl tells her story.

Death was hanging all around you, behind the beer and the laughs and the bowls and the endless games of cards and darts and cricket. Knowing as they set out on a big mission that some planes would probably never get back. Knowing for sure that half the crews wouldn’t make it through their twenty-mission tour. So, of course, we were all madly superstitious.

She describes how she went out with guy after guy and how guy after guy never came back from his mission. How she acquired the reputation of being the Chop Girl, the evil touch, the personification of ill luck and how she became a lonely figure observing from a distance. And that’s how she observed Mr. Lucky, Walt Williams, appear on the base one day. How he was so charmed that he could maybe even walk on water. How he got that way. And what happens when irresistible good luck meets immovable bad luck.

There’s an expression about the flak being so thick you could get out and walk on it and this story has atmosphere like that because the chop girl’s narrative voice is so convincing and the details are so numerous and varied, yet united, and the story is so focused on its similarly varied, yet united “single effect” regarding superstition, luck, life, and death. There’s not a wrong note anywhere—even the epilogue-like part manages to step across time and quickly depict the loss of youth that, even with the loss of so much terror, is still terrible, and to end on a rather daring but effective note. The whole is completely real and completely mesmerizing. It’s not a very Birthday Review thing to say but, while other stories by this author haven’t had the same effect on me, I thought this one was a masterpiece when I first read it and it still is.

Clifford D. Simak (1904-08-03–1988-04-25)

“The Creator” (Marvel Tales, March-April 1935)

Simak is best known for stories he wrote in the 1940s such as those that formed City and stories he wrote in the 50s which comprised the contents of essentially every story he collected in his lifetime, as well as those later tales which were received with respect and awards. They are often folksy, rural tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and the like. I recommend many of them, such as “The Big Front Yard.” But there was another Simak who wrote wild-eyed crazy adventures that I also recommend like Cosmic Engineers and this tale. It’s very much 1930s SF and does do a lot of ‘splainin’ with lots of technobabble until getting to the action but it’s a big, bold, dangerous vision.

The tale opens in a Wellsian mood with a narrator marooned at the end of time before backtracking to tell us the cause of this effect. The narrator is a psychologist theorizing about his “consciousness units” and his friend is a physicist theorizing about his “time force” and, together, they manage to think up and build a machine that takes them outside of this universe and into a laboratory that’s been haunting the psychologist’s dreams and visions. It turns out that our universe is a bit of gunk this being has created for his (or is that, His?) experiments. Our humans are not the only creatures to have made their way to this great Lab Beyond the Sky, as one pair of bizarre creatures who communicate by electricity and one even more bizarre single stickman are already there and going about their arcane business, creating entirely different time/space/dimension machines to return to the universe. The Creator veers wildly between angry and pleased, calm and frenzied, threatening and genial. But our psychologist has developed a knack for reading his mind and learns something terrible, resulting in some truly bizarre conflict.

As I say, this early tale is not Simak’s tautest construction or most plausible tale, but it’s certainly not what he was taught in Sunday School and, without aid of computers, anticipates some people’s contemporary questions about our universe being a simulation and doesn’t stop there. It’s a remarkable story and a lot of fun.

Review: Dominion, edited by Knight and Ekpeki

dominion-cover

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Hardcover: Aurelia Leo, 978-1-946024-89-3, $28.99, 300?pp, August 2020 [1]

Fiction:

  • “Trickin” by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  • “Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila
  • “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon (reprint)
  • “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh (reprint)
  • “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “Convergence in Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo
  • “Emily” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu
  • “Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (reprint)
  • “The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene
  • “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi
  • “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman
  • “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Syncretism and intensity–often apocalyptic and horrific intensity–are two words which convey the most striking aspects of this anthology of thirteen stories (ten original) by twelve African or African-American authors. I use syncretism not only in the usual sense of many of the stories containing a blend of religious beliefs, but also in the sense that they contain a blend of science fictional and fantastic elements and worldviews. While the stories might be loosely placed into balanced groupings of four horror, four fantasy, and five science fictional pieces, the fantasy sometimes has a strange tinge of rationalism and quotidian reality akin to Campbell’s Unknown while the science fiction almost always has a massive dose of fantasy and either may also be tinged with horror. Only those pieces which are primarily horror are also nearly exclusively horror.

The most striking of those is the superb and harrowing “The Unclean,” which is told by a woman who waits for judgment before the Tree of Truth next to the corpse of her husband with the present moment (1960 Nigeria) broken up by reflections on the past that brought her here. The powerlessness of this woman in her “matrimonial hell” as she is essentially sold by her parents to another family where she endures ostracism as Other and abuse at the hands of her husband is made vividly real. The husband has basically no redeeming features but is depicted in enough detail to have substance and rise above the level of a cartoon and there is complexity as the woman, who hated the system while miserable in it, primarily due to being unable to conceive a child with her husband, comes to a brief complicit acceptance of it when she does finally conceive and is treated better. But then the situation grows much worse–horribly, nightmarishly worse. It is extremely powerful. Conversely, “Thresher of Men” is a simplistic and tasteless revenge fantasy but “Trickin’” is a more adequate story of a young man being possessed by a vampiric spirit on a post-apocalyptic Halloween and “Sleep Papa, Sleep” moves from an underworld cyberpunk mood (complete with skies of TV static) to horror when the Yoruba man making an illicit deal with a Hausa from the north turns out to be a graverobber who has robbed the wrong grave. The concrete evocation of place, the complex depiction of family, and the (compared to most other stories in this book only) understated depiction of the horror (where the living are arguably even more frightening than the dead) put this on a high level, though how a years-dead corpse could have fresh body parts bothered me throughout the story. [2]

All is not unrelieved darkness however, as the more fantastic stories sometimes depart far enough from horror to reach outright humor. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” and “A Maji Maji Chronicle” are both very enjoyable lighter tales though both have serious subtexts. The former involves a sort of magician attempting to recover one of his stolen magical talismans. During this, he runs into interdimensional bureaucracy and some beings who have turned xenophobic toward humans. His absent-minded overconfidence is rudely checked but he has had the good fortune to meet a hybrid human-alien who has suffered prejudice from the people she lives among but has talents they lack. The latter even more serious tale has a father and son amusingly bicker as they travel back in time to German East Africa (now basically Tanzania) in 1905 where the father attempts to meddle in history to improve a terrible situation yet manages to make it even worse. It’s all a lesson to the son and a wise one about how all of humanity is capable of good or ill in various circumstances. “Emily” is a completely serious sort of prose poem of 200 words with a temporal aspect. Even harder to pigeonhole is “Convergence in Chorus Architecture.” It would seem to be a pure fantasy involving two youngsters struck by lightning and the three babalawos (sorts of mystics) who travel to the spirit world to try to bring them back. However both horror and science fiction break through as a ship of bones is first a premonition and then a reality which carries the people off in a cataclysm that then becomes cosmic and affects other worlds (which can all be taken both literally and symbolically). Initially, the use of terms like “electric” and “steam” in an almost technical sense seemed anachronistic but turned out to fit in with the overall ambiguity. It is too richly written for my taste (though it has wonderful phrases like a “distillate of dream”) but others may especially enjoy that. It is wildly imaginative and does make ethereal magic seem concrete akin to the way James H. Schmitz managed to make psi combat seem tangible.

Oddly, the two stories that seem most related to the Congo are both science fictional and both are very distantly related to it. “Clanfall” is set in a fantastic far future with artificial descendants of humanity fighting for dominance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a satisfying structure or conclusion and reads more like a teaser for something else. “Red_Bati” is actually set on a starship and involves a robotic dog fighting to survive after losing a limb and being consigned to the scrap heap. Even more effective, “A Mastery of German” explores the relationship of an American woman with her father and the company she works for. The father’s interest in both personal and social history and the company’s interest in memory transfer techniques dovetail. I feel like the science fictional aspects are pushed beyond credibility for thematic purposes but it’s interesting and otherwise successful and at least feels like the hardest SF in the anthology. “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” (not to be confused with a similarly titled earlier tale) falls a hair on the SF side just as “Convergence” fell a hair on the fantasy side and, like “The Unclean,” deals with women and society. In this, after an incomplete apocalypse which has left an enclave of mutated people struggling to survive, one woman is expected to bear children but wants something else for herself. When the leader inadvertently calls an invasion down on his people’s heads and exiles himself to the forest of fears, horror again shows its bloody fangs and the necessity for her to reproduce becomes even more vital, yet still she resists. While one might sympathize with her but still start to see her as being selfish by that extreme point, the resolution is both fantastic and realistic in ways (and theologically bold). Even better, and rising to, and possibly beyond, the level of “The Unclean” is “The Satellite Charmer.” This moves through three basic stages in which the young orphan protagonist experiences both good and bad in the context of a childhood given consolation and insulation by his beloved grandmother and girlfriend. It is quite realistic except for the science fictional element of the Chinese mining beam and the fantasy element of an earlier childhood experience which turn out to be related. In the second movement, the way in which joy and pain persist for a time but in a context in which this insulation has been stripped away (before even that sort of joy is also stripped away) is movingly done and the story becomes even more realistic in a sense. Then the third movement suddenly shifts into cosmic gear with horror aspects. There is no simplistic good or evil for this protagonist who moves into an agonizingly complex place of awesome and awful deeds beyond the human level. This has a little bit of everything, from the wonderful but painful relationship of “Ife-Iyoku” to the vast scope of “Convergence” to the horror of several stories. I have no idea how the mining beam is actually supposed to work literally, as opposed to symbolically, and I often complain about stories becoming unhinged and lacking objective correlatives and perhaps that’s true here, too, but I think the correlative is the universe, itself, and it works for me.

Regarding the stories generally, they are clearly of “Africa and the African Diaspora” and some do focus on colonialism (even specific colonial events as in “Maji Maji”) and some address current Chinese neo-colonialism [3] while others deal with the African environment or cultural identity or other issues and, I suspect, people well-versed in African history and events would get much more out of this than otherwise but the stories are in no way exclusively focused on such issues and essentially all work on the general levels of “speculative fiction” so that even someone completely ignorant of all things African should be able to enjoy them (and not be so ignorant afterwards). “The Unclean” and “The Satellite Charmer” are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves but I also enjoyed at least eight of the other eleven on some level or other which is an extraordinary batting average. If you’re squeamish when it comes to horror or are looking only for pure-quill SF, I couldn’t recommend this but if you’re looking for a powerful reading experience of any other sort, I can and do.


[1] This is a review of an advance copy. The final pagination is not certain but the book should be about 110,000 words. It should also include a foreword by Tananarive Due.

[2] It’s worth noting that this story is also written in present tense, which usually bothers me and didn’t help here but that (aside from subsets for specific purposes in a couple of others) this is the only such story in the entire anthology.

[3] It’s good to see this awareness of, and antipathy towards, history repeating and it’s an issue some in the SF community could think about as some try to cash in on the Chinese market and others believe that promoting a totalitarian state is promoting diversity.

Birthday Reviews: Saberhagen, Wellman

The birthday boys of the coming week bring us tales of berserkers and balladeers.

Fred Saberhagen (1930-05-18–2007-06-29)

“Starsong” (If, January 1968)

Within a powerfully grotesque framing story about a doctor determining if the brains (some vat-grown, some removed from their bodies) within a liberated berserker base are human or not (and disposing of those that aren’t), is the story of Ordell Callison, the galaxy’s greatest singer, and his new wife, Eury. When playing a mating game of ship tag, one man plays with an unwilling Eury, she flees and, like a wolf running down a sheep separated from the flock, a berserker [1] comes out of hiding and captures her. Ordell learns of this, madly tears out after her, and is also captured. However, his song powerfully affects the cyborg humans that had been under the thrall of the berserkers and he has one chance to escape the base with her.

A great virtue and vice of this story is the fact that it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in science fictional terms. The vice comes from it being an extremely faithful adaptation that provides a rote feeling to the plot along with the discordant “singing SF” element but the virtue is that it is also a naturally powerful plot, is very creatively adapted, and even does some interpretation of the myth. Even more notably, it produces a very unusual and strong flavor which, while still very different, may come closest to some of the weirdness that is Cordwainer Smith. Effective and memorable.

Manly Wade Wellman (1903-05-21-1986-04-05)

“O Ugly Bird!” (F&SF, December 1951)

To borrow from the opening line, “I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you what” this story is like. John’s a traveling musician with a silver-stringed guitar on his way through the mountains to the Bottomless Pool when he meets Mr. Onselm. That unworthy turns out to be a hoodoo man keeping the few folks of the local population under his thumb with the help of an ugly bird – a purely unnatural bird, at that. Onselm is a sight, and the bird is even more so, and things are creepy enough but, when Onselm takes a notion to more thoroughly possess the shopgirl, Winnie, and gathers a small posse to run off the troublesome guitar player who’s also taken a more gentlemanly liking to the girl, things get more urgent and even creepier.

This is a hard story to describe because, on its surface, it’s very simple and very short as well, but Wellman paces things and reveals things and describes things just so, producing a really effective low-key horror combined with a winning perspective conveyed through John’s mountain voice. The one problem with this is that people seem to forget and remember a thing or two when it’s pretty convenient but the tale is a gem, otherwise, and the first of many stories and novels featuring John the Balladeer.


[1] If you’re not familiar with the series, berserkers are machines whose ultimate purpose is to eradicate biological life throughout the galaxy.

Birthday Reviews: Collier, Smith

This week’s pair of birthday boys bring us a piece from The New Yorker and then, for something completely different, a piece from Comet.

John Collier (1901-05-03–1980-04-06)

“The Chaser” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1940)

Collier wrote for the slicks and this is one of the slickest. It’s hard to describe without spoiling but to try to be as oblique as it is, if not as witty, it explains why the business model of a seller of magic potions works when a young man wants a very inexpensive love potion.

E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-05-02–1965-08-31)

“The Vortex Blaster” (Comet, July 1941)

In last week’s “Birthday Reviews,” I said of the van Vogt that, if you like van Vogt, you’ll like the story and if you don’t, you won’t. And I said of the Williamson that, though he was generally able to advance with the times, the particular story was a ’30s story. Well, both those points apply even more firmly to this tale and I’m afraid that, if I have any credibility, I might be blowing it by recommending this, but I likes what I likes. I’ve read Skylark and Lensman books (to which this series of stories is loosely connected) but I’ve never read this series before, and I’m sure going to continue.

Neal “Storm” Cloud is a physicist with an amazing intuitive mathematical sense who has recently suffered the tragedy of losing his family. He’s not suicidal, but ready to die, himself, and this has given him insight into how he may destroy one of the worst blights on the Earth (or “Tellus”). The use of “intra-atomic energy” generally works well but, when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, creating vortices of incredible destructive power on Tellus, which will eventually render our world uninhabitable. So these vortices must be blasted with duodec bombs which have to be targeted with a speed and precision not even a computer has. And the climax is Storm Cloud’s battle with the biggest, oldest, meanest vortex of them all.

There is baseball and football and one shouldn’t evaluate a running back on how well he swings a bat. And there is “literature” and “scientifiction” and one shouldn’t evaluate this on its similarity to “literature.” To quote Storm, himself, “Z-W-E-E-E-T–POWIE!” It’s its own wonderful, intense, exciting thing, with a completely made-up bit of fantasy (atomic energy hadn’t been actualized yet and, when it was, it was dynamically much as Smith describes, but not literally like it) ensconced within a whole lot of science-like stuff. It may not be quite great, but it’s good! Smith goes for an effect and, while he goes about it like no one else, he gets there. I must quote this bit which will be the acid test: if this paragraph doesn’t break you, nothing will, and you should check out this story. (Two camps of mathematicians dispute whether the vortices will grow indefinitely or eventually explode and Carlowitz is in the latter camp.)

And now Cloud, as he studied through his almost opaque defences that indescribably ravening fireball, that esuriently rapacious monstrosity which might very well have come from the deepest pit of the hottest hell of mythology, felt strongly inclined to agree with Carlowitz. It didn’t seem possible anything could get any worse than that without exploding. And such an explosion, he felt sure, would certainly blow everything from miles around into the smitheriest kind of smithereens.

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: Cady, Clingerman, Gibson

Jack Cady (1932-03-20–2004-01-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Gibson (1948-03-17)

“Johnny Mnemonic” (Omni, May 1981)

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

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

Review: The Short Fiction of Lester del Rey

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-01-01 and received some sort of tweak on 2016-06-10. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (I’ve also done a review devoted exclusively to The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”)

After months of intermittent activity, I’ve finished reading the virtual “Collected Stories of Lester del Rey Plus” (62 stories and a novel, ~1550 pages). He only published five original collections in his lifetime: …And Some Were Human (1948; cut vt 1961), Robots and Changelings (1957), Mortals and Monsters (1965), Gods and Golems (1973), and then went back to the beginning with the very large Early del Rey (1975). Of them, …And Some Were Human and Gods and Golems are definitely the best and Early del Rey is definitely the worst, though it is, by definition, a collection of all his previously uncollected early work intermixed with autobiographical material intended to show his development and give some “writerly” advice and so on, rather than a body of fiction carefully selected on its own merits. Since that collection was in chronological order and I had all the other stories from the period, I read them all in chronological order and, after that, kept reading the later stories in publication order (re-reading in the case of the GG stories and a couple-three strays).

(The “Plus” is because I also read the uncollected “Nerves”, Nerves, “Evensong”, and “Robots’ Return”. He didn’t re-collect the first after it was cut from the paperback version of his first collection because it was a novella he’d expanded into the second (a short novel) in the meantime. Either is superb if you don’t have the other but the novella version is better. The third is from Dangerous Visions (1967) and he never collected a story published after 1964. The last is actually by Robert Moore Williams, which I read because del Rey wrote “Though Dreamers Die” as a sequel to it. Del Rey improves on the original there.)

Del Rey’s early stories are often quite sentimental, in the sense of playing on emotions, and that never completely disappeared from his writing. His later stories can be quite gritty and dark, but there are early examples of that, too. He wrote quite a bit of fantasy along with his SF – the fantasy sometimes being the Unknown-style rationalized fantasy, with some verging on the slick style. His SF is sometimes hard SF but often sociological or psychological. He seems about as comfortable with one as the other. He wrote more SF but edited more fantasy and I think he says somewhere in Early del Rey that he prefers fantasy, which surprised me. He has a fascination with biblical phrases and themes but takes some, let’s say, unconventional approaches to them. And he has a strangely jaundiced and negative view towards aspects of modernity and big city life but it tends to result in either dark griping stories or a yearning for transcendence or ancient elysian fields rather than a Simakian/Bradbury-esque exaltation of the recent rural past or general failure to engage with modernity. Stylistically and structurally, he’s often a pretty pulpy writer which some might not be able to appreciate but he can be quite adventurous, especially conceptually and, after all, he was chosen by Ellison to lead off Dangerous Visions.

Probably the most remarkable thing I noticed about my reading was that, while I’m a hit-or-miss guesser generally, I could usually tell that a story was going to be a twist story or have a big reveal and guess what that twist/reveal was. I don’t know if that’s on me or del Rey or some weird synergy but, if you value truly astonishing twists and have the same guessing quotient I had, that might be an issue.

Anyway – to the point: I also have a copy of The Best of Lester del Rey from the great Ballantine “Best of” series and a little game I played was rating all the stories without looking at The Best of contents and then seeing what happened at the end. Of my top 10 stories, there was no reason, by his lights, for del Rey to include “Nerves” or “Though Dreamers Die”, and “Anything” was too similar to at least one other story to make a good balance (and does have a significant flaw) and, otherwise, all my top stories were in The Best of:

  • Helen O’Loy” (1938) is a tricky tale. It was his second story and first great success, like van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” or Asimov’s “Nightfall” but, in my opinion, unlike those stories, allowances have to be made. This is a sentimental tale that might be seen as sexist today and the novelty of the robot companion concept, however risque it might have been in 1938, has largely worn off now. But it’s still a pretty neat and historically significant tale and was chosen for the SF Hall of Fame in the 60s.
  • The Day is Done” (1939) is another of the early sentimental stories but is extremely effective as it details the last neanderthal and his interactions with the new-fangled critters.
  • The Coppersmith” (1939) is a great fantasy about elves rendered unconscious by air pollution and, while it misses climate change, reading a ’30s fantasy story about peak oil was pretty fascinating. It’s also a great bit of characterization/conception.
  • The Wings of Night” (1942) is a Don Stuart-like tale that contains many implausibilities and wouldn’t even be attempted today (even suitably modified) but the evocation of the last of an ancient telepathic race on the moon produces benefits more reasonable stories miss.
  • For I Am a Jealous People” (1954) is a fascinating tale about an alien invasion of earth that has god on its side and how a preacher and his atheist doctor friend respond. This is the sort of tale that just grabs you and becomes very vivid and involving.
  • The Seat of Judgment” (1957) is, in many ways, a much more “dangerous vision” than the story actually in Dangerous Visions (1967), dealing as it does with a bit of pretty explicit alien sex a la Farmer’s “The Lovers”, combined with alien (and human) religion a la Martin’s “A Song for Lya” along with even a tiny dash of Anderson’s Flandry.
  • Vengeance Is Mine” (1964) is about space invaders wiping out humans, leaving a robot (later joined by another) to create more robots and bring the religion of Man to the galaxy while hunting the perpetrators.

A story to note from the second-tier of good stories is “And It Comes Out Here” (1951) which is a sort of time travel story for people (like me) who (often) hate time travel. Most time travel stories feign a sort of “time travel logic” that is completely illogical – this tale is completely logical about its illogicality – it dives right to the center of the nonsense and embraces it. Campbell made a rare editorial error in rejecting this because it didn’t do anything. This is true, but that’s the point. It’s a useless story because time travel is nonsensical. But it’s a clever and fun story.

Beyond this, my second set of favorites and del Rey’s don’t intersect but that’s really just a case of disagreeing on which merely good-to-fair stories to include to fill up a big collection (16 stories, 366 pages). The only thing noteworthy is that del Rey selected “Into thy Hands”, perhaps due to his fondness for allegory, but I hated that one. I also didn’t much like “The Years Draw Nigh” (thin, implausible, overwhelmed by malaise) or “The Monster” (second-rate van Vogt), though they have their good points. But otherwise, the half-dozen remaining selections are at least okay.

So if you’re really inspired to dig into del Rey, it can be fun and worthwhile in a way but he’s really not a “completist” author. I do strongly recommend The Best of and one version or other of “Nerves” (novella version available in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol.IIB) as essential, though.

Belated Book Haul

I’ve made a little more progress in Project Asimov and will post about that soon but, in the meantime, here’s some book porn. In 2017 and 2018, I posted pics of my purchases at the annual library book sales but neglected to do that for 2019. I didn’t neglect to take the pics, though, so here are the ones of the SF books that I got on the first couple of days . (Some are replacement copies, some are new, and the SF Encyclopedia is the first edition to go with my second and the internet’s third.)

(If you want, you can click on the thumbnails to see the full-size pics.)

Spine shot of single-author mass-market paperbacks.
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Same, but with full-frontal bookity.
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Spine shot of anthologies, tradepapers, and hardcovers.
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And a front-cover shot of the same.
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Edit (2019-01-04): Made thumbnails bigger.

Review: Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies

Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies (Pyramid, 1964, pb, 155pp.) R-1029

“Introduction”
“The Man Who Returned” by Edmond Hamilton
“Spider Mansion” by Fritz Leiber, Jr.
“A Question of Etiquette” by Robert Bloch
“The Sea Witch” by Nictzin Dyalhis
“The Strange High House in the Mist” by H. P. Lovecraft
“The Drifting Snow” by August W. Derleth
“The Body-Masters” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
“Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard

‘Tis the season to be crawly, so I thought I’d review something in keeping with those spirits the day before Halloween. Weird Tales is a selection of stories published between 1931 and 1942 in the magazine of that name. The selection is credited to Leo Margulies, a publisher and editor involved with several SF magazines, but was (appropriately enough) ghost-edited by Sam Moskowitz. Presumably, Moskowitz also wrote the uncredited three-page introduction, which describes some of the history and character of the magazine, as well as the short introductions to the author of each story.

Being Weird Tales, the magazine included SF and fantasy as well as horror and two of the less successful tales in an otherwise very successful anthology represent those categories. Long’s 1935 story, “The Body-Masters,” is set in Cosmopolis in the year 5678 with a protagonist named V67 who is a Gland Surgeon. Seems almost everyone in this (dys|u)topia is a doctor, some of whom essentially vivisect maladjusted people with the aid of a strange pseudo-anaesthetic. This milieu and its robot mistresses are used to explore the atavistic emotion of jealousy and the notion of ideals. In one sense, this is a bad story but it is strangely imaginative and tackles a theme in a way that brought to mind Robert Silverberg’s “The Throwbacks” which, oddly, I just posted here though I reviewed it long ago. Almost half of Dyalhis’ long fantasy, “The Sea Witch,” is given over to repetitive descriptions of the nude woman an old man finds coming out of the sea on a dark and stormy night. Much is made of her archaic knowledge and speech but the narrative style is at least as archaic. Finally, the tale of magic revenge in a literally Byzantine plot unfolds in the second half after mixing New England, Norse myths, and reincarnation. I can see how some might enjoy this tale, but I didn’t.

While you could stretch “The Sea Witch” to fit some notion of horror, it’s essentially a fantasy as told. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist” also requires some stretching, though less so. 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. Moving more definitely into horror, Bloch’s “A Question of Etiquette” also deploys its style to good effect. Through the eyes of a census taker who has been drugged by the witch he had the misfortune to interview, we witness the wild night of her Sabbat and his strange fate. The narrator’s tone, which moves effectively from black comedy to phantasmagorical fear without varying the same basic pitch, is remarkable.

Several stories, such as “Sea Witch” and “High House” are New England tales and/or snowy. Derleth’s “The Drifting Snow” is another of them. In it, through an aunt who doesn’t like the curtains on one side of the house to be opened and a niece-in-law who feels a compulsion to open them, we learn a family secret from the past which led to a very strange sort of revenant who entices more to join her number. Aside from that, this is an oddly pleasant tale of a family get-together. Strange, but fairly effective. Another snowy story is Hamilton’s piece about “The Man Who Returned.” John Woodford wakes to find he’s been buried alive. The opening horror gives way to a strange inversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the irony keeps on ironing. It’s odd that a man so sick he’s been taken for dead is so vigorous in this tale which is also overly reliant on coincidence but it’s otherwise pretty effective and, despite being reminiscent of Poe, is also unusual. Leiber’s “Spider Mansion” is another tale that has some echoes of Poe (and is the sort of thing which, dammit, Janet, had its influence on The Rocky Horror Picture Show). With its “Negro” servants and psychologically twisted midgets, its obviously not a contemporary story but when a couple arrives at the creepy house of a person they think they know one dark and stormy night, the host, a midget-turned-giant via the superscience of his brother, hosts a morbid dinner and regales them with his own diabolical “genius.” Meanwhile, another horror lurks about the house and grounds and things must culminate in damsels in distress, swordplay, and fire. While an element of the ending can be made plausible, it takes some work and the title gives away what is held as a reveal in the story but this is otherwise fine, freaky stuff.

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. The Leiber, for instance, is very good, but is quite fantastic from the start, which may not allow some readers to get into it and the superscience may be effective for some and a distraction for others. This tale’s prosaic opening and initially very basic horror works much more certainly. Lovecraft’s style, for instance, works very well for his tale but Dyalhis’ (at least for me) was fatally damaging. This story skips any possible problem with that and just tells its tale. Again, with the Dyalhis, the disparate mythological pieces don’t mesh that well for me whereas this tale’s antebellum relics and imported voodoo fit superbly. Highly recommended.