Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

You didn’t really think I was done with Bitter Bierce did you?

I came across this book entirely accident while hanging around the Spearfish Public Library with my mother. Bierce expert Don Swaim says it’s the only book on an obscure part of Bierce’s life.

How could I resist this one?

Review: Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, Paul Fatout, 1956.Ambrose Bierce and the Black HIlls

In May 1879, Bierce’s column in the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut suddenly stopped appearing, and he spent the next year-and-a-half in an experience which was to embitter him further, yield little money, and which he spoke of very little in later years.

He became involved with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Bierce finally gave into his wife and mother-in-law and left England in 1875 though he was a successful journalist in London. On his return to San Francisco, he worked in the Assay Office at the local branch of the United States Mint. That, along with all the talk about California mining and the Black Hills gold rush which started in 1874, may have gotten him interested in mining. His father-in-law, Captain H. H. Day, was a famous mining expert, and Bierce liked him a lot more than Day’s daughter or his wife.

In March 1877, Bierce was back at the Argonaut. Fatout thinks it was this period that the Black Hills began to show up in Bierce’s fiction. The title “The Night Doings at Deadman’s” may have been inspired by the name Deadman Gulch near Rockerville, in Dakota Territory, and it was Rockerville which was to be at the center of Bierce’s time in the Black Hills. I think Fatout’s on far less certain ground when he says the “gulches, sluice boxes, pans, and a Territory” of Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest” may derive from the gold rush in Dakota Territory. Those appurtenances of placer mining certainly would have been in California too. Continue reading “Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills”

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Heat of the Midday Sun

Review: Heat of the Midday Sun: Stories From the Weird Weird West, ed. David B. Riley, 2015.518UDqDhydL

Not all the stories in this distilled version of the first ten years of Science Fiction Trails are great. (And two stories were never published there.) Many aren’t even among my favorite stories from the issues I’ve read.

But they all manage to be at least acceptably entertaining. You’ll rarely find anything too serious or grim in that magazine.

I’m not going to review every story. Many I’ve read before and reviewed here. I’ll list them at the end.

But let’s take a look at the new stuff.

C. J. Killmer and Sam Kepfield, two stalwarts of the magazine, produce the best efforts.

Killmer’s “Forewarned Is” splices well-done, detailed gunplay and a science fiction concept together. It’s hero, Lefty Bolingbroke, a Southern aristocrat, is into Madam Chang and her gang for a lot of money. But, being the honorable sort (he did, after all, visit all those high-priced girls and smoke that premium opium), he doesn’t try to shoot his way out of trouble. Instead, he offers to pay his debt by taking care of “Big Jim” McCready, an outlaw who stole from Chang and is also wanted by the law. Oh, and Big Jim has four arms. Continue reading “Heat of the Midday Sun”

Chronosequence

Joachim Boaz mentioned Hilbert Schenck the other day over on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, so I thought I’d post this.

Raw Feed (1993): Chronosequence, Hilbert Schenck, 1988.

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Cover by Bob Eggleton.

This was the first Schenck [and only] I’ve read and an original, moving, fast moving tale.

The blurbs calling this a Lovecraftian tale are only partly right. There is delving into historical documents like journals and diaries and newspapers, but, whereas in a Lovecraft tale death and/or insanity follow such pursuits, here the result is, for protagonist Eve Pennington, much more benign and transcendental – though still deadly for her.

Schenck has a knack for creating characters. I not only liked Eve Pennington, but my favorite was old would-be spy Ed C. Berry who helps Pennington.

Even the details of Pennington’s incest with her sister are handled naturally, realistically, and, though it’s normally an act I’d find repugnant and/or alien, I accepted it as a crucial, important event in her life, an experience she cherished.

On the down side, the evil government conspiracy was a bit hackneyed and predictable. I’m not sure Schenck even wanted to disguise biologist Marta Hoerner’s role as an evil government agent, but I still cheered when the alien wasted her.

I agree with Pennington and her lover Ian McPherson that the aliens’ power to control minds, bodies, and perceptions is to awesome too trust to government.

But the very best part of the book – a wonderful, clever, original and very good part it is – is the alien and the mystery around it, a lonely, shipwrecked alien on Muskeget Island, an alien that just wants to die. But to do that he must have human help, human aid, to override his survival programming. He must wait for a hurricane to threaten his hideaway on Muskeget, lure a human host to come nearby so the alien can put its personality into the host’s body and be destroyed with the host.

To ensure the host stays, the alien replays intimate (in every sense of the word) sexual experiences of certain women (it finds women more receptive to its powers) to keep them while death closes in. It is by a indirect series of manipulations of people near the Island that Pennington is lured there to relive an incestuous incident with her beloved and dead sister.  As the hurricane closes in, time slows and Pennington relives her experience with her sister and also the special, very detailed memories of others who have been to the island.

It’s a special idea, an original, moving one: an alien that wants to die (and that learns despair on Earth) and enlists the lives and memories of select humans to do so.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Tiger! Tiger!

Another summer of mission creep following the pattern with Ambrose Bierce and Kathe Koja.

I was just going to review the last two books in James Gunn’s Transcendental Trilogy and then one thing led to another.

This one is a Gunn rarity. My signed chapbook implies only 126 were printed.

Review: Tiger! Tiger!, James Gunn, 1984.Tiger! Tiger!

Gunn concludes his introduction to this short novel with:

The year is 1952 when the short novel was written; or, if you prefer it is a portion of the Planet Stories of 1955 or 1956, [Gunn sold the story to Planet Stories, but the magazine folded in 1955 before it was published], although, to be sure, “Tiger! Tiger!’ was not typical Planet Stories stuff and you will be disappointed if you expect science-fantasy or adventure. I don’t know why Planet Stories bought it. This was a new direction I was trying to take, a direction illustrated by my first novel, This Fortress World (already underway, although it would not be published until 1955), which tried to combine gritty naturalism and literary skills, and by the stories in Station in Space.

I had not yet taken it as far as I wanted to go – there is, for instance, the kind of romantic subplot that I thought was necessary in those days, and moments of action that I thought readers wanted. If I were writing the story today, I’m certain I would leave them out. But I couldn’t write the story today.

This is a story of aliens “monitoring our technological development” as Gunn says in that introduction. He’s not certain he had yet read Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel of Eternity” aka “The Sentinel”. He had certainly read Ted Sturgeon’s “The Sky Was Full of Ships” and wanted to take the idea in a different direction.

There are several things here that makes this a characteristic Gunn work despite his reservations how he wrote it: a flawed hero, literary allusion, a tone of melancholy mixed with hope, that gritty naturalism – though, as he remarked, less gritty than later works, and even a prefigurement of his later Gift From the Stars.

Our flawed hero is Lester Blake, an astrogator in America’s space program which has put up a space station and a base on the moon, an ex-alcoholic, divorced, balding, a man who is evasive about his age because he feels old, and something of a career failure in that he didn’t become an astronaut as hoped.

The literary allusion, as you can guess from the title, is to William Blake’s “The Tyger”, and Gunn gets a surprisingly effective amount of power in working its lines into a story about a mysterious body orbiting Earth.

The story starts with Lester Blake, operating on a hunch and knowledge of previously anomalous observations of cosmic rays, the aurora polaris, and radar detections, aborting a scheduled relief mission to the moon base.

His partner, at the White Sands Rocket Base, manned by the U.S. military, is Rich Dodge. He’s everything Blake isn’t: an actual astronaut, young, handsome, confident, easy with the ladies.

Yet, Dodge supports Blake in his possible insubordination even though the latter urges him not to damage his career by doing that. There is the inevitable inquiry.

Base Commander Brigadier General van Devlin is convinced by Blake that something strange is in a circumpolar orbit and that it’s not natural. Blake mistakenly does not contradict Van Devlin’s belief it is a Russian weapon. He thinks it’s alien. Van Devlin’s aide, Colonel Allen, is out for Blake’s head though. They have history. Allen married Blake’s ex-wife Sarah, and it was that divorce that precipitated three years of heavy drinking by Blake.

Tony Fazio, a troubleshooter in the base’s research division, backs up Blake’s belief that the orbiting object, dubbed by Blake “the Tiger”, is artificial.

Fazio, Blake, and Dodge meet to discuss what to do – not that the decision will be in their hands since Van Devlin has contacted Washington and the Pentagon with the recommendation the object be destroyed. They are joined by a third member, Jeff.

Jeff, actual name Jessica but her father wanted a son, is the object of Blake’s love from afar. But she hangs out with Dodge, and Blake thinks she can’t be interested in him, an older man, divorced, and ex-drunk.

The romantic subplot Gunn talks about is this relationship, and he does lay it on a bit thick at the end when the two get together after Jeff convinces Blake she really loves him and was just waiting for him to realize it.

The group ponders the Tiger. What is its purpose? Surveillance? A weapon? What happens if it is destroyed? How can its technology, which may give humanity the path to the stars, be harnessed? Is it really the source of observed cosmic rays?

The action part of the story comes in with the second half of the story.

The base is locked down with no communication to the outside, and the group decides van Devlin’s plans to destroy the Tiger need to be stopped. Word of the Tiger’s existence has already been leaked to the outside world, but the spin of a Russian threat has been put on it.

The group hatches a plan for Blake to get off base and contact the media about the possibility of the Tiger being alien, and not Russian, in origin.

Spoilers ahead.

When he goes to a nearby town, Gunn’s gets to put some gritty detail into Blake’s contacting, via phone and letter, a reporter he knows. The town was built for workers building the White Sands base, but it is still a sleepy small town 15 years later. When Blake goes into a nearly deserted bar to make a phone call and, later, when escaping the MPs sent after him once his exfiltration from the base is discovered, a small town hotel. The bartender is surly. The hotel clerk is asleep. Gunn also characteristically details the layouts of those buildings.

Returning to the base, Blake is charged with espionage. He learns van Devlin has been removed from command and Allen is in charge. In jail, he even gets a visit from ex-wife Sarah who tries to talk him into retracting his analysis. In exchange, Allen will drop charges against him.

Eventually, though, Blake’s contact with the media pays off. The world begins to consider the Tiger may not be Russian. Russia denies it is and calls for a UN investigation.

Blake is released. He reunites with Dodge who tearfully confesses he implicated Blake because Allen threatened to end his career as an astronaut.

Blake, the would-be astronaut, forgives him and tells him he understands. It’s at this point the subplot with Jeff and Blake is wrapped up.

But there’s one more sting in the tale. The missile targeted for the Tiger is still on the launch pad, primed and ready to go.  Van Devlin suicidely launches it, and the Tiger is destroyed.

The story ends with Blake and Fazio forming a company to investigate commercial space travel, and the aurora polaris has vanished.

Space travel enabled by alien technology is, of course, at the center of Gunn’s Gift from the Stars. Depiction of a space program, as with Gunn’s Station in Space, is realistic given it’s pre-Sputnik. The air of melancholy, lost opportunities for alien contact, prefigures Gunn’s greater The Listeners.

As Gunn says, this is a 1952 story (set in 1967). Explicit references to the Red Scare are here, of course. With all the exposure since 1952 of Soviet espionage and subversion in America, the gulf between Red Scare paranoia and Red Scare reality was less than what midwestern liberal Gunn implies. (His autobiography Star-Begotten mentions him being puzzled at his wife going to see Senator Joseph McCarthy at a rally and finding him charming.)

Of course, the story, with its depiction of nationalism and a military only being concerned with immediate security and not long range concerns, fits in with Gunn’s view of science fiction as racial fiction with the race being humanity as a whole.

And, with Blake’s activities at media manipulation, Gunn, even before his professional public relations career, shows an interest and knowledge of that field.

 

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Beloved Son

And, with this, the George Turner series comes to an end.

As what usually happens, I got distracted in completing my Turner reading. I did read Genetic Soldier, but I made no notes on it, and I have no memory of it.

Raw Feed (1993): Beloved Son, George Turner, 1978.

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Cover by Boris Vallejo.

 

This was, I believe, the first Turner work published in America though, of course, he was well known in his native Australia. It includes most of the themes and features of Turner’s other work I’ve read.

There is the concern with the biological sciences and their awesome power. Here that is manifested in that popular late seventies’ sf topic – the clone – and successive genetic manipulations to create types of supermen. Some clone lines are for developing superior reflexes, memory, and engineering ability. Other, seemingly trivial, (but important to the ultimate plot), test the genetic influences on homosexuality. More bizarre variations and experiments in biology include truncated heads (with the brain in the chest). Of course, as is common in the clone sub-genre, the clones are telepathic and (also common) form sort of a non-violent religion around their natural born progenitor and main character, Albert Raft.

There are the related themes of an overpopulated, polluted, secret, nationalistic world starting a global war shortly after leaving for Barnard’s Star. The war features limited nuclear weapon use but is also fought covertly by some unknown (the identity has been lost after the war) power using biologically engineered weapons against various nation’s peoples and agriculture. (An idea that drives the plot of Turner’s The Destiny Makers as politicians debate whether to cull the world’s population using the same technique.) Continue reading “Beloved Son”

The Destiny Makers

The George Turner series continues with a formatting oddity.

This review was originally published in issue 28 of The Leading Edge. I don’t have a computer file of it; I wasn’t going to try to scan it from the magazine, and I wasn’t going to retype it, so you get a photos of the original submission.

From 1993, that makes this a …

Retro Review: The Destiny Makers, George Turner, 1993.

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Cover by Dorian Vallejo

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“Lord of the Land”

Review: “Lord of the Land”, Gene Wolfe, 1990.

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Cover by Bob Eggleton

This week’s weird fiction is from Gene Wolfe and, unlike the few other works I’ve read by him, relatively straight forward. (I’m not much of a Wolfe fan.)

Evidently, after its first appearance in Lovecraft’s Legacy, edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg, it had an afterword that I’m told, by the LibraryThing group, was rather apologetic for writing a Lovecraft pastiche. Here the main Lovecraft inspiration is his collaboration with Harry Houdini “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”. And we’ve got tentacles and a concluding science fiction rationale.

Wolfe doesn’t have any nested tales here. He almost has an unreliable narrator, but there’s a reason for his false detail.

That narrator – and narrator only for a story that he tells the protagonist Dr. Samuel Cooper, a folklorist, and often called “the Nebraskan” in the story – is the elder Thacker. (Incidentally, I suspect Wolfe is having some fun in alluding to the film The Virginian with Gary Cooper, but, no, nothing else of that story is used unless there’s a Colonel Lightfoot in the novel or movie since there’s one here.)

Thacker tells Cooper of an odd story from his youth when three boys shot an old mule and then engaged in a shooting competition using all the crows that showed up for targets. In the gathering darkness and to better his score, one of the boys, Creech, shoots a strange figure “like to a man, only crooked-legged an’ wry neck … an’ a mouth full of worms”. Continue reading ““Lord of the Land””