Ever since my amateur reviewing reached the point where publishers, editors, and authors sent me books, I’ve always chosen titles out of curiosity and maybe a little sense of duty. I’m not given to passionate gushing about books or using the phrases like “You’ve got to read this book.” That will often produce the opposite effect on me.
No, I don’t have to read that book. I assume that at least a portion of my readers exhibit the same contrarianism.
So I won’t gush about Purdom’s one and only collection. I will just say that it’s been the first review title offered by a publisher that I immediately, enthusiastically requested, and it got moved to the top of the review pile.
I had read several of the stories before. All were at least as good as I remembered. One I liked even better on second reading.
If I actually read my science fiction magazines when they arrived in the mail, I would have discovered Tom Purdom before 2001 when I read his wonderful “The Noise of the Their Joye”, a time travel piece involving J. S. Bach. Informed by Purdom’s years as a classical music critic, it’s a look about how we all benefit from the pain of the past.
Purdom has actually been publishing science fiction since 1957. However, he stopped publishing novels in 1972 and his fiction output dropped to a trickle until he returned in strength in the 1990s.
Review: Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons by Tom Purdom, 2014.
It’s a terrible, truthful title.
Purdom’s stories are seldom about just one thing though. Not only do these stories have lovers and fighters, they have other characteristic Purdom concerns too: extended lifespans, dominance struggles among groups, military culture, the evolution of sentience, and music.
“Fossil Games” has a group of humans, their talents and intellect rendered obsolete by succeeding generations, retreating from the solar system in a hollowed-out asteroid. They pass their very long lives trying to find a purpose for existence. The fossil games of the title refers to not only the age old struggle for dominance amongst human groups, but the sought for prize: evidence that intelligence evolved on other planets besides Earth.
Politics is at the heart of “Haggle Chips” too. Its interstellar trader wants to sell eye substitutes to a local businesswoman. The leader of a religious cult doesn’t like the woman’s attempt to corner local water resources, so he takes the trader hostage. But the story’s real conflict starts when a woman is psychologically modified by the cult to bond with the trader and deter him from escaping.
“Dragon Drill” is a fantasy piece with a Prussian general dispatched by Frederick the Great to kill an honest-to-goodness dragon which has appeared. It’s the Age of Reason vs. the Age of Legend as well a meditation on the beginnings of modern military culture.
Wars small and large, past or pending or ongoing, shows up a lot in this collection. Purdom describes the tactical considerations of his conflicts in detail. The development of his wargamer eye is covered in this, the most autobiographical story here, “Sheltering” Its hero is a 91 year old man playing computer games in a shelter full of evacuees, all fleeing a war fought with “military microbiology” on the east coast of America. The therapeutic value of wargames is pondered as a small boy takes an interest in the old man’s activities.
“Canary Land” is a moving story of the immigrant experience, but here it’s an American biodesigner, unable to make the big leagues in Shanghai. He winds up on the moon as a poorly paid musician ensnared in industrial espionage.
“Research Project” concerns the meeting of two sentient races. One, against all theory, happens to be “predatory and semi-carnivorous”. That would be us. The aliens would like to give humanity an advanced propulsion system in exchange for exclusive rights to Mars. Like many stories here, it speculates on the evolutionary influences that shape intelligence, but it’s also a look at the unusual nature of many scholars and scientists and their frequent social isolation.
“A Response from EST17” is another take on alien contact. Here, though, the two warring human probes that make contact find aliens very well practiced in dealing with the situation. They must decide whether humans pose enough of a threat to get the Message, a powerful data set that fulfills all utopian dreams and is so disruptive that its past recipients all have lapsed into silence.
Purdom is never a sentimental writer. Hard choices are often the foundations of his conflict. And “Bonding with Morry” is not a sentimental story. Its elderly protagonist may decide to make his service robot more humanlike due to social pressure, but he and firmly makes a point about its alleged sentience and humanity at story’s end.
The historical allusion and inspiration for “Sepoy” is right in the title. Its crippled protagonist is approached to work for the alien tucfra who conquered Earth and maybe saved humanity from self-annihilation in 2044. Fearing official retaliation and vigilante action, he doesn’t want to become a collaborator even if they promise to provide him with an expensive and very well-functioning body. But he also doesn’t want to turn in the tucfra agent attempting to recruit him.
“Legacies”, when I first read it years ago, struck me as an implausible story because it showed a military concerned, to what I thought an unlikely extent, with the psychological welfare of its soldiers’ children. Thirteen years and a couple of wars later, it seems more realistic in that regard. And it always was a strong story in its take on the personalities most attracted to the military and the families they form. Purdom draws on his experience as a “Navy brat”.
The transgression of the hero in “The Path of the Transgressor” is to have a wife genetically engineered to be supportive, agreeable, and self-sacrificing as he does animal studies on an alien world. But, when a local, possibly sentient, species suddenly poses a lethal threat, combat breaks out and its hero realizes that there are unexpected implications in having such a wife.
“The Mists of Time” is Purdom’s retort to those who cynically and simplistically view history with an eye to stripping honor from the past. The historical event is a minor skirmish in the British navy’s anti-slavery campaign. The conflict here is between the rich patron of a time traveling expedition, which involves an ancestor of the patron, and the cynical artist there to record events.
There are several other outstanding Purdom works that could have been included in this book. For now, this is a good start in recognizing a writer too long ignored. Every one of these stories, first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 1992 to 2012, is worth reading.
Afterthoughts and Extended Details
“Haggle Chips”‘s protagonist comes from the planet of Arlane. Purdom was added to my list of authors I think worthwhile to explore in detail so I think I’ll start with his novel Five Against Arlane. I’m curious if it bears any connection to the story’s world. I also have, still unread, his novel The Barons of Behavior. It seems to be evidenced that scientific behavior modification has long been an interest of Purdom’s.
In his Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Purdom, critic John Clute says that an “innovative coldness” in Purdom’s style produces “an estranged clarity”. I think I know what he means though I disagree about the ultimate effect being an emotional coldness. Purdom rarely gives us internal monologues for his characters. In plots often featuring scientifically crafted personalities, he tells us the emotions of his characters or, usually, what they could be feeling if they didn’t deliberately manage their emotions. I suppose some would see this as a breaking of that vague commandment to writers to “show not tell”. That always seemed a vague rule to me, more suited to a critical description than a firm rule for a writer to follow.
As I hinted in the review, wargaming and music seem exert an influence on Purdom’s prose style. (Of course, the style and those interests could spring from a common source in his personality.) To give you an example of his tactical delineations of combat, here’s two excerpts from the end of “Sepoy”:
Marcia flowed past him with a velocity that was about twice as fast as the best speed any human should be able to force out of human muscles …
He backed the chair away from Patros’s body and maneuvered himself into the middle of the room. There was a position that put him just forward of an imaginary line that connected O’Keefe’s sprawling legs with Patros’s head. If he placed the angle of the chair just right, he could watch the bathroom door without seeing either of them.
If music can be simply defined as “time organized by sound”, than I see a bit of influence of music in passages like this, that precisely quantify time, in “A Response from EST17”:
They argued for 11.7 seconds. At 11.8 seconds they transmitted the message to their backup transmission route. At 11.9 seconds, Varosa Uman’s shattered the surface of the antenna and melted most of the metal veneer.
The cover art for this book is rather amateurish looking, vaguely surrealistic, and having nothing to do with the contents. It seems to be a stock image chosen, no doubt, for economic reasons by the new publishing company of Fantastic Books. However, their catalog seems stocked with both classic titles long out of print and promising new collections of less well known authors.
Purdom’s stories are often featured in David Hartwell’s Best SF series, and Purdom is also selling some of his stories directly at his website. He also has a literary autobiography posted there.