Birthday Reviews: Gunn, Sheckley, Smith

One of this week’s stories takes us into one of the most uniquely imaginative space battles ever and even sneakily connects to the other two, which are related stories that ask what it would be like if women really were from “Venus” and how a man could get a perfect woman. I’m going to discuss those together because they make a nice pair.

James Gunn (1923-07-12)

“The Misogynist” (Galaxy, November 1952)

Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16–2005-12-09)

“The Perfect Woman” (Amazing, December 1953-January 1954)

In “The Misogynist,” a naive narrator introduces us to Harry, the “wit” who can tell jokes like no one else. He then repeats a story of Harry’s which conveys his ideas about women and which the narrator thinks tops all his previous jokes.

In “The Perfect Woman,” the year 3000 has arrived. Through the viewpoint of a hungover Mr. Morchek, we learn about the conversation he had the night before with a man who has married a Primitive Woman and learn what a Modern Woman is like as we observe Morchek’s relationship with his own wife.

There are nice twists in both these tales. The naive narrator is utilized well to get to the one in “The Misogynist” while the reader’s initial naivete about the society of the year 3000 is utilized well to get to the one in “The Perfect Woman.” Both are very economical (though “The Misogynist” could have been tightened still more). And they both have several interesting angles. Both would probably be taken as literally misogynistic today and that’s a reasonable interpretation from the internal realities of the stories. However, they can also be taken in the reverse sense, as mocking some men’s desires, expectations, or worldviews. It’s also interesting that, even if interpreted simplistically, it would only serve to show that all sorts of sensibilities could be represented in the “conformist” 1950s while today’s “diversity” has narrowed the conceptual possibilities of the genre. In a way, this would (aptly if taken seriously, and ironically if taken ironically) prove some of the Misogynist’s theorizing correct. But, heavy topical stuff aside, these are well-written and entertaining short stories.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11–1966-08-06)

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (Galaxy, October 1955)

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In the far future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, people have progressed to the point of traveling through space via planoforming, but have encountered malevolent underspace beings who would make this impossible, if not for the telepathic battle teams of human and cat who perceive the enemy as dragons or rats, respectively, and, together, are capable of fighting and usually destroying the beings with light bombs. We learn of this amazing milieu and witness one such battle, as well as the effects of one mind upon another.

It’s hard to grasp that the first section or two-fifths of this story is essentially just an infodump because it’s so bizarre, fascinating, and enlivened with points of emotional connection. Then it moves step-by-step into the assignment of “partners,” the preparations, the combat, and the aftermath, showing excellent structure and control. But the greatest power of this story is its uninhibited imagination.

Review: Dominion, edited by Knight and Ekpeki

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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: Heinlein, May, Wyndham

This week’s tales provide entertainment while also showing the good and bad that can arise when we go out there or when things come here.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-07-07–1988-05-08)

“Columbus Was a Dope” (Startling Stories, May 1947)

A salesman is in a bar celebrating his sale of steel to a professor who wants to build a starship and he, the professor, another salesman, and the bartender get to talking about why people would build a starship. After the professor has left, they also discuss the odds of anyone on the ship surviving. At this point, the subject of Columbus, the explorer who found a New World, comes up and the salesman provides the title which is soon undercut. Without spoiling the specifics, the story ends with clever irony which reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Firefly, when Wash mockingly dismisses something by saying, “That sounds like something out of science fiction!” His wife tells him, “You live in a spaceship, dear.” Not getting her point, he replies, “So?” In a way, this is a minor story for such a major author but it has a very big theme in a small package and demonstrates many of his virtues, such as economically making the far-out and futuristic utterly common-place and believable.

Julian May (1931-07-10–2017-10-17)

“Dune Roller” (Astounding, December 1951)

In her first tale, Julian May takes us to the alien world of Lake Michigan for an adventure I can’t believe wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie. After an introductory scene of a meteor striking the lake long ago, we cut to Dr. Ian Thorne, who is playing in a shore pool, recording the statistics of the various critters therein, when he notices something gleaming attractively. He collects the golden elongated teardrop which sets in motion a chain of events which includes some discovery and some death and destruction. All this is told in a very understated and leisurely way (which includes some effective humor) which exhibits the storytelling confidence of a veteran (though there is a sequence where all the characters are a little too quick on the draw for plausibility). The milieu is made both concrete and vivid but also, as I said, very strange. The main character and his friends (including both a non-scientist and a fellow scientist), as well as his new girlfriend, all have their distinctiveness. Finally, this particular Thing from Another World is effective and memorable. Good stuff.

John Wyndham (1903-07-10–1969-03-11)

“The Asteroids, 2194” (New Worlds #100, November 1960)

Much of this feels like a very mainstream tale with plenty of layers in the narrative onion to peel. A journalist is visiting an island where he meets a man who seems rather odd. By way of explanation, another local tells the story of a freighter captain who collided with a derelict. He discovers three bodies in the other ship but only one is dead. The other two are not yet dead, but in cryogenic suspension, though the revival process is often fatal. And perhaps that’s a good thing for some people. Though the story features multiple characters and settings, it’s about almost none of them but actually about one person who no longer has a place and feels he has lost even more than that. Either way, the colorful and well-told layers have their intrinsic interest (and serve their thematic purpose) and it ultimately gets to its thoughtful point (whether one sympathizes with it or not).

Birthday Reviews: Taylor

This is a strange week, as I’m in the unusual position of finding only one story to discuss (and one that is unusually recent yet, ironically, also an old review).

Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-07-01)

“Take Us To Your Chief” (Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016)

Lightly revised from 2017-01-30.

I’ll quote the opening of this story to demonstrate how quickly it got to the, um, point that it hooked me.

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately), with an uncommonly fine (and quiet) set of protagonists, and full of the sort of quirky details which often make a story work for me.

Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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

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

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Leinster, Tall, Williams

This week’s stories (celebrating writers who all happen to be having at least their 112th birthdays) include a man incapable of understanding a Power, a contacted species incapable of speech and a contacting species incapable of telepathy, and a pair of lost explorers incapable of getting themselves back home, but they are more than capable of entertaining readers.

Murray Leinster (1896-06-16–1975-06-08)

“The Power” (Astounding, September 1945)

A professor of Latin has come across some manuscripts, including three related letters which he passes on to another professor. The letters were written in Italy in 1482 by Carolus to a friend and they detail his effort to follow a dead man’s path and summon a demon – a Power – who will provide him with knowledge and power of his own. Despite how it sounds, this is very much science fiction and that’s not the only reversal or transformation, as the initially fearful mortal human comes to a different relationship with the Power which changes yet again, with a couple of varieties of pathos, before an ending with an unusual blend of disgust and hope.

Leinster was the original “Dean of Science Fiction,” who began publishing it in 1919 and has written several top-rank stories of great variety but this is more unusual than most. It’s been well-received but isn’t usually mentioned in the first breath, so is still underrated to me (as is Leinster, himself). The story’s structure is solid and the style through which Carolus’ time and mentality is conveyed is effective, he and his Power come across as genuine beings, their motivations are solid, and their relationship provokes strong and varied emotions. The tale is well-suited to tackling its theme of the constraints of conceptual frameworks which can relate to everything from revolutions in worldviews to being able to read science fiction itself, as with Samuel R. Delany’s notion of reading “protocols.” It’s a rich story, a reasonably short story (with a great last line), and seems like it should be better known. Leinster is actually represented in the SFWA Hall of Fame with “First Contact” and he certainly should be, but I think he could also have been represented by a few others, including this one.

Stephen Tall (1908-06-14–1981-01-15)

“The Invaders” (If, August 1973)

Through the eyestalks of Red Spine, we witness epochal events in the history of the “canceroids.” It starts when a rockfall kills many and they are all fed to the Eater, a mutant crab-like being many, many times the size of his fellows who does nothing but demand to be fed constantly. When he’s fed this time with such largesse, he molts, becoming even bigger. And hungrier. Then some strange little bipedal creatures with pairs of tiny eyes arrive on Red Spine’s homeworld and first contact is complicated by the fact that the canceroids can’t speak and the invaders can’t use telepathy. An unusual period of wary mutual observation follows before the two events of the enlarged Eater and the invaders come together in a transformative way.

This is a fine example in the long line of “alien POV” stories which has an interestingly conceived ecology and social structure with almost Clement-like aliens (in that one of the main things which makes Red Spine, especially, alien is simply un-human logical equanimity). All of this is (pointed and clever) cover for its ethical and economic themes but both levels work. This is part of a series of stories and isn’t the most popular one since “The Bear with the Knot on His Tail” was award-nominated and this one is atypical in the series in that it’s the only one in which we see the crew of the Stardust from an alien point-of-view, but I like this one best of all. Readers don’t have to be torn by indecision, though since both were collected with four others in The Stardust Voyages.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19–1977-05-12)

“Flight of the Dawn Star” (Astounding, March 1938)

Graham and Sarl were exploring in a spaceship near the Sun when something went wrong and they found themselves hurled near a world surrounded by unrecognizable stars. With no hope of return and nothing else to do, they set off to explore this new world. They find a stupendous city which represented an inconceivably advanced civilization in its prime but which is now falling to ruin. This strikes Graham and Sarl as also inconceivable. What could have ended a civilization that could have built such a city? Then the pair find that the planet is inhabited after all, not by gods in the city, but by naked savages in the fields. Other than their nudity and carefree attitudes, they are beings much like the explorers and, it turns out, not so savage after all. They telepathically explain their blissful existence and hope the pair will join them. However the humans of a struggling Earth don’t think they’re cut out for such a life, so one of the natives offers to send them home. Both the native and the explorers have a couple of surprises in store.

This was published in Astounding fairly early in Campbell’s editorial tenure and has a kinship with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” (which I discussed last week), so it’s easy to see why it appealed to him. The writing initially feels awkward or overdone and the science is awkward and underdone, but this variant on Lotus-land ultimately casts a bit of a spell.

Review: The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF: Volume 5, edited by David Afsharirad

Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8406-0, $16.00, 319pp, June 2019 [1]

  • “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” by Brendan DuBois
  • “Going Dark” by Richard Fox
  • “The Scrapyard Ship” by Felix R. Savage
  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter
  • “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon
  • “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • “Crash-Site” by Brian Trent
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer
  • “Hate in the Darkness” by Michael Z. Williamson
  • “Homunculus” by Stephen Lawson
  • “Not Made for Us” by Christopher Ruocchio
  • “The Erkennen Job” by Chris Pourteau

The fifth edition of The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF opens with a preface by the editor who muses on the series’ five-year voyage before giving way to an introduction by David Weber who again muses on the horrors of war coupled with the benefits of speculating on it and its future.

Despite the introduction, only half of this anthology is military SF, with the other half fitting better under the “Adventure” portion of the title. Stephen Lawson’s superb “Homunculus” is a case in point. Want to colonize Titan via a tiny little telepresence robot which you can use to construct habitats out of polyethylene “legos” extracted from the environment? Or at least think it’s a cool idea? Then read this story! The crisis in this milieu arises when a kid goes missing and a cryovolcano quake causes him to be trapped in a ruptured and deadly part of the habitat. The only hope for saving him involves those little robots and the powers of chemistry. Other good adventures include William Ledbetter’s sort of neo-pulp adventure “Broken Wings,” which involves two unlikely heroes (one overweight and one paraplegic) confronting pirates and Brian Trent’s “Crash-Site” in which competing groups of almost larger-than-life adventurers race to recover a biotech prize from a downed starship. I also enjoyed “The Erkennen Job,” Chris Pourteau’s future-noir tale in which one corporation controls the solar system but is riven with faction. One scientist in the employ of one faction may upset the balance of power in the system if another faction’s assassin doesn’t complete his mission. That hard-bitten (yet oddly sentimental) assassin forms an unexpected alliance with an idealistic cop as both, for their own reasons, try to get their man. Varying the dark tones, Felix R. Savage’s “The Scrapyard Ship” goes for a bit of humor as a couple of shapeshifting traders crash-land on a world where they get involved in interstellar politics while trying to get a replacement ship.

Even among the more restricted form of military SF there are some unconventional pieces. I thought James Beamon’s “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” was one of the best stories of the year and was amazed that this “year’s best” was the only one to select it. No one should miss this alternate history tale of the Crimean War with a street urchin press-ganged into combat aboard an airship crewed in part by vampire attack monkeys. Christopher Ruocchio’s “Not Made For Us” is another excellent tale of a soldier more or less compelled to fight. In this case, he and some companions are thrown into battle with a gigantic ship full of horrors and the combat is not the sleek and choreographed violence of Hollywood or the clear morality of political speeches, but is a messy, desperate flailing about full of physical and moral confusion. The editor acknowledges in the preface that he is friends with the author who works for Baen but “challenge[s] anyone to read ‘Not Made for Us’ and chalk up its inclusion to nepotism.” Challenge declined: it’s a very powerful piece. While not in the league of those two stories, Brendan DuBois’ “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” also dealt interestingly with its young soldier and his efforts to die well, win a lady’s favor, and help fend off alien invaders. Suzanne Palmer’s “Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” like “The Scrapyard Ship,” is another story with a humorous element regarding an incompetent soldier’s internal prosthetics and their efforts to keep him alive and has received a favorable response from many readers.

One thing readers might like to know is that several of these stories are in series but all those have definite conclusions and only one (“Hate in the Darkess,” among other issues) seems to suffer if the reader isn’t already familiar with the other tales. That aside, there are certainly stories I’d like to see in here which didn’t make the cut and I did scratch my head over the inclusion of a couple that did but some readers may love them and not like some of the ones I’ve highlighted. Regardless, there are many fine and varied stories here which should especially appeal to those looking for the good ol’ stuff but which should also include some gems for those differently inclined.


[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on June 16, 2019. I’m reprinting it because this book came out in 2019 and I want all my reviews of books published from 2019 onward to be available here.

Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.


[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Currents of Space

asimov-cos

The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952

A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.

Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.

The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?

Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the writer to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers [1] but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.

And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans [2], it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.

Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.


[1] There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)

[2] As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.

Birthday Reviews: Clement, del Rey, Walton

The week’s birthday stories blur the line between man and machine and explore religious and gender conflict.

Hal Clement (1922-05-30–2003-10-29)

“The Mechanic” (Analog, September 1966)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of Space Lash from 2014-05-06.

In “The “Mechanic,” Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone with which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and dealing with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

Lester del Rey (1915-06-02–1993-05-10)

“For I Am a Jealous People” (Star Short Novels, 1954)
“The Seat of Judgment” (Venture, July 1957)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of The Best of Lester del Rey at Black Gate from 2018-10-27.

“The Seat of Judgment” is an astonishing tale from 1957 which involves the titular form of punishment which is almost incomprehensibly horrible, incestuous group sex, and fairly explicit alien sex. An old colonial official of a decaying Earth empire returns to a planet of green marsupials, where he’d been instrumental in averting a religious uprising a generation before, and is tasked with repeating his feat. Despite the natives having only goddesses, a male prophet has arisen and the priestess and the official work together (the latter somewhat unwillingly) to deal with him. The twist to this tale is truly brutal and the whole is fascinating from multiple angles which include personal, historical, social, and religious. “For I Am a Jealous People” is another remarkable tale of religion. Rev. Amos Strong and Dr. Alan Miller are friends despite the latter’s atheism and the two friends go through a vicious and multi-faceted ordeal when aliens invade Kansas. The two friends are nicely characterized individually and together and the Reverend’s quandary about what to do when God is not on our side is compelling. His ordeal rivals Job’s and some may find it excessive but others will find it seizes them and won’t let go.

Bryce Walton (1918-05-31–1988-02-05)

“Too Late for Eternity” (Startling Stories, Spring 1955)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from a discussion board post from 2014-09-27.

“Too Late for Eternity” is stark raving mad, but thoroughly competent and effective. It’s about how women live longer than men. Do they ever. The longevity difference started innocently enough but the gap continued to widen:

And then the Third World War. Records, statistics destroyed. A lot of men destroyed too. And after that, three women for every man.

Matriarchy. The women had taken over. And a lot of those women hated men and hated science. Some of them formed anti-male cults. Who needs men?

They took over everything, Joad thought, lying there with his face pressed against the floor. Everything.

Joad is about 120 and comes home to find the young up-and-coming business exec he’d recommended to his wife in bed with her, as is natural when it’s time for the old guys to be retired and the ever-youthful wife needs someone with more, um, stamina. Hilariously, in this matriarchy where women control everything, the morning after her wild night with her new guy, she makes both men breakfast. There are similar persistent 1950s notes through this 2700ish matriarchy and the Freudian weirdness and misogyny is kind of staggering, though it is counterbalanced by an eventual misandry – let’s just call it a general misanthropy. But a couple of aspects of the story really work. First, it’s a completely whacked-out future that has a compelling nature – like Pohl and Kornbluth on a bad day. Bad acid day. And the protagonist’s pain and anger at getting old and being replaced and finally getting wise to how he’s been programmed to accept everything–and how he doesn’t accept it–is quite effectively portrayed. It’s kind of the madman or Ancient Mariner effect of a guy grabbing you by the lapels and conveying a tale of lunacy with such intense conviction that it works. And he hits a lot of birds with this stone – age, sex (kinda shocking sex for ’55, I’d think), gender, cults of beauty, pointlessness of some societal ambitions, the bad aspects of exaggerated masculine and feminine traits, etc. Wild stuff.


Edit (2020-06-04): Added images.