The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

A retro review from May 27, 2012 …

Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder, 2010.Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

“With blood and with iron, shall a nation be moulded.” And what blood and what iron!

Hodder doesn’t exactly give us a steampunk world. There are too many biological grotesqueries like swans big enough to carry men into deepest Africa, huge dray horses, greyhounds who deliver messages to every memorized address in London, and parakeets who deliver voice messages – liberally laced with insults and profanity. Mendel’s work, in this world, was not “lost” and men like Darwin and Francis Galton have plenty of ideas about using the new science. This is no Victorian Age of freakish steam powered machines (though there are plenty, here). Indeed, Hodder gets rid of Queen Victoria in 1840.

Technically, that sort of makes this an alternate history, but Hodder cheerfully does such violence to history and the many historical personages he has here – not to mention throwing in werewolves and the bizarre legend of Spring Heeled Jack – that it feels very different.

Explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne, author of the above quote, make a good duo of investigators for King Albert. Swinburne, with his small stature and masochistic tendencies, provides a lot of comic relief. Burton, after an early encounter with Spring Heeled Jack, realizes that his life could take an alternate path and that provides a quite satisfying scene towards the end of the book. Continue reading “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack”

It’s Up to Charlie Hardin

Review: It’s Up to Charlie Hardin, Dean Ing, 2015.It's Up to Charlie Hardin

Another February partly spent in Texas and parts between there and Minnesota. The books I took along were the Texas-centric Roadside Geology of Texas, Charles L. Harness’ Cybele, with Bluebonnets, and Dean Ing’s latest novel.

With the first sentence of the preface, Ing tells you this is not one of his usual books and what kind of book it is:

This is the sort of confession a man may indulge in if he is too lazy to commit the autobiography his grandkids asked for, and too self-absorbed to scribble the books his publishers wanted more of. It is also naked homage to Mark Twain, who in 1875 half-fictionalized the lively times he had enjoyed in his Missouri village thirty years earlier.
The setting for Ing’s version of Tom Sawyer is the Austin, Texas of 1944. (The book jacket has the wrong date.)
There are some typical Ing features: accident and the human emotions of pride, avarice, and ego tangling lives and leading to a collision of characters. This is not the first book of Ing’s to feature young characters in prominent roles.
But there are no fantastic elements. No espionage despite the mention of Nazis. And the only planes are model ones.
But it is a charming story told in a sardonic, wry voice not afraid to point out portentous connections to events the character are oblivious to and point out his characters’ foibles.
Our characters are
  1. The impulsive, stubborn, and prideful Charlie Hardin
  2. Charlie’s smarter and more prudent friend Aaron Fischer who still finds himself pulled into Charlie’s schemes
  3. Roy Kinney, sneaky, whiny, not too bright and 10 years old to Charlie and Aaron’s 12.
  4. Jackie Rhett, budding juvenile delinquent and something of a bully, fat, fast, and rather smart.
  5. Lint, Charlie’s clever and loyal dog.
Rounding out the cast is Charlie’s dad, a juvenile offender officer with the city, Charlie’s mom, a couple of criminals, and Eugene Carpenter, budding sociopath and criminal genius at age 13.
In the months between April and June 1944, Charlie and Aaron wander from diversion to diversion: model airplanes, combining melons and giant slingshots, flaming tires, wandering the capitol grounds of Austin seeking treasure and the storm drains of Austin responding to dares.
It was an age when kids like Charlie and Aaron weren’t feral or neglected — just normal, and a kid like Charlie wouldn’t find himself with a Ritalin prescription.
Ing tacks on an afterward hinting at the lines of between autobiography and invention.
I recognize the spirit of Dean’s story even if my boyhood, three decades later and in a very different setting, shared few of the events in Charlie’s boyhood.
All in all, a book that should appeal to many beyond Ing’s usual readership.
A Small Criticism
Charlie and Aaron seem a bit too naïve about the nefarious doings they come across. I’m not sure I would have been that naïve. Perhaps that’s what those three decades did in eroding innocence. Or maybe I just spent more time in the library than Charlie and Aaron.

Faces of War

Faces of War

Something a bit different this time.

If you find yourself in Minneapolis before March 14, 2016 and have any interest in Russian history or World War One, I would highly recommend The Museum of Russian Art’s Faces of War exhibit.

It’s the third stop for the exhibit which premiered in Moscow and then went to Belgrade.

Looking at not only events on the battlefield, it also covers the home front, internal Russian politics — particularly the lives of the royal family during the war, and the war’s aftermath.

I’ve been to the Imperial War Museum (though I have not seen their revamped World War exhibit) and the National World War One Museum in Kansas City. You will see stuff here you have not seen before.

For me the high point was the actual telegrams and hand written letters exchanged by Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas as they begin to realize the apocalypse about to descend on Europe. They corresponded in English so you can see Nicholas’ agitation in his handwriting and underlinings.

Other high points:

  • Coverage of Russia’s heroic Brusilov Offensive in 1916 that vey well may have stopped a German victory at Verdun.
  • Bios and photos of individual generals.
  • Photo of a Russian submarine being launched.
  • News reel footage of Archduke Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo.
  • The turmoil in the Imperial Court including the Czar’s abdication speech.
  • The October 1917 suicide note of a Russian Army ensign who would not serve in the post-Revolutionary army.
  • Russian wartime bond drive and propaganda posters.

The exhibition book costs $35, and, to be honest, unless you are a hardcore World War One buff, it’s not worth it. It doesn’t capture much of the flavor of the exhibits though it does have some interesting material on United States aid to Russia before America entered the war, the growing hatred against the Czarina and Rasputin by not only regular Russians but some nobility, and the stalling of the new Russian government in making peace with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1918.

This exhibit was put together with the help of the Russian Federation and its archives. This is not the first time the Russian government released some of its archives on the war. The first, under the Soviet regime, was to embarrass capitalist countries.

This exhibit takes a fairly neutral tone on the Czar. You can perhaps dispute its claim that Russia bears no blame for the war — but you can’t dispute a lot of things about the beginning of the war.

Perhaps understandably, the exhibit book doesn’t even mention the word “Tannenburg” though it certainly acknowledges a military defeat at the time and also mentions Russian successes in Galicia.

Both the exhibit and accompanying book mention the Allied “Polar Bear Expedition” to Arkhangelsk. The last survivor of that expedition was Harold Gunnes who was born in Barnesville, Minnesota and died in 2003.


Constellation Games

It’s awards time in the science fiction and fantasy world. Which means nothing. It’s always award time in the science fiction and fantasy world.

The annual Locus reading list is out which creates a small dilemma for me. Should I participate in the award rituals and cast a vote in the Locus awards? That would mean participating in one of those many awards I regard as largely useless in terms of distinguishing merit or lasting value. On the other hand, as a subscriber, I will get a free issue added to my subscription. (I’ve only missed the voting twice in over thirty years.)

That would be $7.95 of value. Somehow I think my time will be better spent doing things besides cramming down 2015 titles between now and tax day.

While I don’t think awards are a guide to picking books, reading lists are another matter depending on whom made the list. The annual Locus reading lists are good guides.

These thoughts were triggered by comparing the merits of Leonard Richardson’s Constellation Games to the Hugo winning Ready Player One.

Richardson’s gaming novel is far superior to Cline’s.

A retro review from May 1, 2012 …

Review: Constellation Games, Leonard Richardson, 2012.Constellation Games

Yes, the cover is ugly – an amateurish looking bunch of buttons with alien symbols on them on a sickly sage green background. (Seemingly more blue, though, in the actual published version judging by the publisher’s website.)

Yes, the subtitle, “a space opera soap opera”, is too cute and misleading for what the book is.

Yes, the cover description is professionally done but doesn’t inspire one with confidence as to whether the book will really deliver on its promise. Frankly, I wouldn’t have bought this book myself.

But this is a good book. It’s a funny book and an inventive one.

Narrator Ariel Blum is an acid tongued, sarcastic narrator – not normally the kind I like to spend time with, but I’ll grant he’s realistic, and I liked all the programming and engineering jargon he laced his speech with. When aliens show up and begin mining the moon for materials to build a space station, he has the insight that if the aliens have computers they have computer games. And Ariel knows his computer games. As a game programmer and obsessive game reviewer, he wants to study alien videogames.

What he finds out in those games about alien cultures, biologies, environments, and the effect of first contact with the alien coalition known as the Constellation is the most inventive part of this story. Apart from Ian Banks’ The Player of Games and Fritz Leiber’s “Knight to Move”, I’m not personally acquainted with any stories that use games to expose elements of alien culture (and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia seems to confirm this). That aliens would indeed have videogames now seems, at this point in our technological development, obvious, but only Richardson seems to have done anything significant with it. Continue reading “Constellation Games”

“Silent Thunder” & “Universe”

This is the last of my Dean Ing-related material though it’s possible you will get a review of his 2015 Tom Sawyerish It’s Up to Charlie Hardin. I started reading it after finishing Charles L. Harness’ last novel, Cybele, with Bluebonnets. Not coincidentally, both are novels based on their authors’ Texas boyhoods since I just got back from that state. (And the Harness novel is something of a masterpiece in many senses.)

The Quantrill books referred to are Ing’s post-apocalypse trilogy Systemic Shock, Single Combat, and Wild Country.  I have plans to look at those soon too.

Heinlein’s “Universe” got reviewed, of course, as part of Orphans of the Sky.

Sometimes you can figure out some underlying rationale for Ace Double and Tor Double pairings, but I can’t think of any here except for the purely commercial one of publishing an Ing novella. (Though both stories have religion as an element.) Tor has gotten into publishing novellas again, and that’s a welcome development.

Raw Feed (1992): “Silent Thunder” by Dean Ing/”Universe” by Robert A. Heinlein, 1991.Silent Thunder

Silent Thunder”, Dean Ing — I liked this techno-thriller by Ing.  It works mainly because Ing knows the clichés of the thriller story and knows his readers are aware of them too. We know Pam Garza is President Harry Rand’s ex-lover and Walter Kalvin’s toady, and Ing doesn’t try to futilely fool us. We know that Laurie Ramsay is going to get kidnapped, so that plot turn is done early.  Again, Ing doesn’t try to fool us. But Ing does tell a fast-paced, exciting story. The sf element, the Donnersprache, is an interesting device, and I wonder how much reality there is in the background details of German research into electronics and psychoacoustics. Spider Robinson once said Ing wrote moral fiction and that’s true. Here Ing uses the Donnersprache to get in a few truthful observations on the manipulability of democratic populaces and how not everyone has the right to his opinion if it’s founded on emotion and not fact. (Interestingly, Ing never gets into an obvious application of the Donnersprache. If it can electronically enhance the credibility of someone’s voice, why couldn’t the same techniques be used to create a very negative impression of a speaker? Perhaps this is what Kalvin does when Rand deviates from the former’s scripts. ) The violent way in which Laurie escapes her captor was surprising, and Ing’s way of showing the error of her former non-violence stance (a stance fostered by her mother). A child forced into violence to survive is something of an Ing theme as witnessed in his Quantrill books. I liked Ramsay being able to forgive dupe Garza and marry her and how traitor Terrence Unruh tries to kill Kalvin. Ing makes a nice point that a man may sell out for personal reasons (Unruh wants money for his family after he dies), but be unwilling to totally sell out his country. This statement has a counterpoint to Ramsay not saying anything until his daughter is safe. And Rand is furious at being unwittingly manipulated and used by Kalvin. He may be a dopy, repressive preacher, but he’s got integrity that helps save the day. But the very best thing about the story is that America is saved from fascism by a conspiracy of moderate-minded Masons — who assure a cabinet member that their handshake and promise has been good enough for centuries. It’s nice to see this much maligned group (the villains of many a fictional and alleged conspiracy) being the heroes.

Universe”, Robert A. Heinlein — A true classic. I liked the medievalism of the society in the spaceship:  a religious based hierarchy with our hero being hauled up for trial about his views of the nature of the ship and world outside a lá Galileo, storytellers with amazing memories who serve as judges too, and an easy acceptance of slavery under the muties. I also liked mutant Jim-Joes who seems a curious Heinlein character:  a learned man with little ambition (but capable of decisiveness). I liked him (them?) unable to realize the difference between fact and fiction in what he (they?) read.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82

Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2010.Palace at Midnight

“Our Lady of the Sauropods”, I called it, and when Omni published it in the September, 1980 issue, the cover announced, “Robert Silverberg Returns!” I imagined the puzzled readers, who surely were unaware that it was seven years since I had deigned to write short stories, turning to each other and saying, “Why, wherever has he been?”

There wasn’t anyone to turn to when I first read that story. I was alone in a pickup truck during downtime at a construction site in the summer of 1980. But I recall being slightly puzzled at the implication Silverberg had been gone.

With this volume of Silverberg’s stories, I enter that part of his career where I read a lot of these stories when they first appeared. Others I first came across in Bantam Spectra’s first in a series of one volumes collecting Silverberg’s stories.

Many I hadn’t seen before.

The Plots

A surprising number are fantasies or non-fantastic stories of Americans having strange experiences in Third World Countries. An American academic recovering from the “wreckage of his marriage” tries to wheedle his way into a mushroom-worshipping cult in Jerusalem in “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa“. Silverberg’s fascination with cacti and a story from his friend, botanist Paul Hutchinson, gives us “How They Pass the Time in Pelpel“. How the inhabitants of a remote village in Chile pass their time is following a strange auto race.

Silverberg has an admitted fascination with Mexico, “its mixture of tropical sunlight and eerie pre-Columbian darkness”, Mexican dance masks, and that shows in two tales. A collector of those masks has a chilling encounter with something that only looks human in a remote Mexican village in “Not Our Brother“. The death of Silverberg’s friend Philip K. Dick led to the Dickian reality-slip tale (rather like Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) “The Changeling” where, outside the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a man slides into a world where he has a wife and a new job. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82”

Firefight Y2K

More Dean Ing.

This time a book of fiction, speculation, and advice.

Raw Feed (2001): Firefight Y2K, Dean Ing, 2000.Firefight Y2K

“Preface” — Rather perfunctory introduction to the collection noting its diversity of fact and fiction pieces including historical fantasy and science fiction.

Fleas” — Almost literally a biter bitten story. This tale is also about a vampire-like predator preyed on himself, fleas on fleas since both are parasites.

“A Report on Advanced Small Arms Concepts” — Interesting article on some advanced concepts in military armor, transportation, and small arms. The article talks about a brainstorming session conducted for the U.S. Army by engineers and science fiction authors and addressing future military hardware for infantrymen. I thought the most interesting idea was the ramjet bullet which contains primer on the inside surface of a cylinder. After being propelled to velocities roughly matching a .45 Auto round, the propellant begins to burn and the round increases in velocity for more power, longer range, and a flatter trajectory for a round that would probably be about a .38 caliber.

Manaspill” — This story didn’t do much for me at all. I found it tedious. It used a fairly typical plot for a prehistoric story: plucky orphans discover talents while facing a tribe’s scheming shaman who knows much less about magic than orphan girl Thyssa. This story is set in Larry Niven’s When the Magic Goes Away universe (specifically it was first published in the shared world anthology The Magic May Return) which is based on the notion that magic is powered by concentrations of a material called mana.

Malf” — I rather enjoyed this story of nifty tree harvesters (they limb, cut, and stack the trees in place and walk on legs as well as roll on wheels) engaged in combat and how a skilled operator of the experimental machines turns out to be a vicious ex-getaway driver for the Mob. Real tree harvesters exist (this was a 1976 story) but not this elaborate or large. I presume, Ing being a former engineer, that the engineer jargon of the narrator is accurate to the profession. Villain Infante’s psychological instability turns out, in another case of literalized metaphor, to cause the instability of handling in one of the Magnum harvesters.

“The Future of Flight:  Comes the Revolution”, Dr. Leik Myrabo and Dr. Dean Ing — A brief article about, amongst other future transportation technologies, using laser powered rockets. Continue reading “Firefight Y2K”