Birthday Reviews: Chandler, Delany, Vinge

This week’s birthday reviews give us two novellas around a novelette and the trio takes us from ships of deep water to gambling dens of Mars and ships of deep space where we meet merfolk, cyborgs, and stranger things.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-03-28–1984-06-06)

“Giant Killer” (Astounding, October 1945)

Insofar as this story depends on a reveal at least midway into the story and another at the end, this doesn’t work at all because what is revealed should be obvious to most readers. Insofar as it depicts a strange society bent on eradicating members outside its bounds of normality while that society exists in a world it doesn’t really comprehend and insofar as it engages the reader’s interest by creating characters with strange powers fighting with each other and the powerful and inscrutable giants who dominate that milieu as some of them come to understand it better, it’s a fantastic success. It even goes beyond this in being quite philosophical and thought-provoking without stopping the action to pontificate. Very good stuff.

Samuel R. Delany (1942-04-01)

“Driftglass” (If, June 1967)

The protagonist was modified into a merman as a boy and then was modified further when an underwater industrial accident crippled him. Now near middle-aged, he spends much of the story with his fisherman friend and with the next generations of merfolk, contemplating his past and their future. The “south of the border” setting and elements like fishing for marlin (albeit in a way you’ve never been able to fish for marlin before), along with its viewpoint stoicism which observes many people who are less stoic, puts me in mind of a weird sort of Hemingway, though the style is more elaborate. Either way, the milieu is vivid and the characters breathe (whether in or out of water).

Joan D. Vinge (1948-04-02)

“Fireship” (Analog, December 1978)

If “Fireship” makes you think of something off the shoulder of Orion, you may be disappointed as this is not that. The “fireship” is a metaphor for the protagonist, which references ships set on fire and sent into an enemy’s armada. On the other hand, if you weren’t thrilled by The Snow Queen, you may still enjoy this. It’s a proto-cyberpunk story in ways, dealing with Ethan Ring, who is the symbiotic cyborg personality of a computer, ETHANAC, and Michael Yarrow, a sort of guinea pig or sacrificial lamb chosen to test the mind-machine connection because he was expendable. Having become a new being with the instinct for survival, Yarrow/Ring becomes known as a thief (and plays a mean game of cards) which results in his flight to Mars where he gets sandwiched between a dictatorial tycoon and the operatives trying to overthrow that ruler. In addition to the cyborg and the seedy underworld characters, it even has a faint whiff of noir style or at least a sardonic tone. While I don’t entirely buy some of the psychology of the conclusion, it contains interesting ideas that are at least worth entertaining and the whole story is involving and exciting.