“Erbach’s Emporium of Automata”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “Erbach’s Emporium of Automata”, D. P. Watt, 2013.

Despite the steampunkish title and the presence of various clockwork automata (and things that don’t seem to be powered by clockwork springs), this is not a steampunk story. 

It’s set in a fairly specific real world place and time: England ca. 1955 in some seaside resort town like Worthing or Brighton. 

The narrator opens with the story describing how the kids gather around a woman at the end of a pier. They call her the “Rocking Horse” because she just rocks back and forth on her feet.

The narrator knows who she is: Ivy Wilkins. They used to play together as kids. 

We then get the back story of the titular pier amusement in 1955. 

The kids gathered there to watch the various toy automata and clockwork dolls, almost always unique, proprietor Erbach shows. Most of, but not all, the toys have sophisticated windup mechanisms. 

There are mysteries though. A six-inch bicycle wends through the other moving toys on a green table (probably an old snooker table) and stops when it reaches the end. 

The narrator and the other kids don’t want to go to the room beyond the curtain at the back of the emporium. That would spoil the mystery. 

But, one day, the narrator sees Ivy in the backroom. She is watching what seems to be sort of a miniature solar system, with green hills below it with and a dancing rabbit on those hills. There seems to be no mechanism by which the model planets rotate around the sun or how the sun blazes. The rabbit seems to respond to Ivy’s glee. Then the rabbit “sees” the narrator and the whole thing stops. 

Erbach gives a despairing cry in some unknown language. 

Ivy then goes to talk to narrator John. She says Erbach told her something, and she doesn’t think she will ever be the same. And then the narrator senses her looking into him and compares himself to some examined mechanism. 

Ivy is altered. Her parents eventually send her to the “funny farm”. 

The narrator marries, moves away, and then, when he comes back to town, sees Ivy on the pier. 

Watt seems to want to generate some effect by implying that Ivy, through Erbach’s strange toys, has received some mind-bending knowledge. At the beginning, we are told her staring eyes look into “an infinite expanse inwards, into the very mechanism of her soul”.  The narrator says that it was in Erbach’s Emporium where he learned about death. Ivy on the end of the pier seems to echo that bicycles that has reached the boundaries of his world.

I suppose we are to see humanity as existing as some sort of metaphorical clockwork toy under the gaze of greater entities just like the bicyclist exists for Erbach or the relationship of the toy solar system to Erbach. 

But Watt really doesn’t give us much affecting emotion. It’s a “microcosmic god” story with a bit of revealed self-knowledge that also reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s “The Electric Ant”. 

The Wind in the Willows

I wasn’t going to review this book. It’s a fantasy, for one thing, and it’s hardly an obscure work. Quite the opposite. However, someone I know knew I had recently read the book and asked I post about it.

Essay: The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908.

Grahame’s novel is about many things, an England whose passing was noted in a story of talking animals, and a story of romance and beauty.

For me, though, it was a novel of friendship, friendship of the best kind.

Toad, the novel’s most famous character, is a flighty creature given to sudden fads pursued enthusiastically, disastrously, and expensively. But, as Rat says of Toad at the beginning of the story,

So simple, so good-natured, and so affectionate. Perhaps he’s not very clever—we can’t all be geniuses; and it may be that he is both boastful and conceited. But he has got some great qualities, has Toady.

Toad is, I suppose, a symbol of a foolish, moderately wealthy gentry who can indulge their modern enthusiasms. But, while his vanity and recklessness and impulsiveness give us plenty of laughs, they land Toad in jail from which he escapes in a humiliating way. Toad returns to his ancestral home to find it occupied by the Weasels.

His good friends help retake it.

Continue reading “The Wind in the Willows”

Wild Country

Review: Wild Country, Dean Ing, 1985. 

Cover by David Mann

The last novel in Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy is sort of a western.

Most of it is set in Texas on the border with Atlan Mexico with some brief excursions to Oregon (Ing lived in both Texas and Oregon) and Norman, Oklahoma. There are bar room fights, chases on hovercycles instead of with horses, a poor woman who doesn’t want to sell her spread to a rich landowner, and final showdown between two gunslingers.

And we have the old cliché of the gunfighter who may be running out of time as his reflexes slow, and he still faces men gunning for him.

The gunfighter is Ted Quantrill, now a deputy U.S. Marshall in the Wild Country. President Young’s administration ended after the events of the preceding book, Single Combat. Street, the leader of the resistance, is now Attorney General in the new administration though he mostly operates out of Alice, Texas. (Not, as I can tell you from visiting it, a major urban area.)

Being a deputy doesn’t pay that well, so Quantrill also works part time for Marrows, a former bull rider turned veterinarian. He tells Quantrill that one day he will get a “sign” that he’s not up to his marshall job just like Marrows got a sign when a bull mauled him.

Continue reading “Wild Country”

Single Combat

Review: Single Combat, Dean Ing, 1983. 

Cover by Howard Chaykin

The world has settled down in the second book of Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy. The Fourth World War ended about five years ago. Nations are picking up the pieces. Technology has advanced. There are even plans for New Israel – now on leased land in Turkey – to build L-5 colonies.

Ted Quantrill is no longer a teenager trying to survive and find a place in a post-holocaust world. He’s found his place. It’s killing people for the government.

The secret group of assassins, called T Section, he works for is at the center of the book. It hides behind the cover of Streamlined America’s Search and Rescue organization which goes out and helps people in the still devastated areas of the country. From Systemic Shock, there’s Sabado, the unarmed combat instructor who recruited Quantrill out of the Army; Seth Howell, political instructor; Marty Cross, an expert at covert pursuit; and, Mason Reardon, a master at surveillance. Most importantly, there is Marbrye Sanger, the first trainee Quantrill met, and the two have a relationship. It’s sexual with much unsaid because things can’t be carried further when your every conversation is monitored, and, if your lover goes rogue, they’ll end up dead – maybe at your hand. Any intimate discussion or thoughts of rebellion has to be in notes and sign language.

But, at a T Section briefing, Quantrill learns that resistance to President Young’s Streamlined America has gone beyond guerilla actions into a more organized phase. There are even rumors some T Section members have gone rogue. Perhaps, he thinks, the regime can be changed after all.

Continue reading “Single Combat”

Systemic Shock

In keeping with the whole plague and war theme, I finally finished Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy having read the first two books years ago.

A novel from the 1980s with a nuclear world war and survivalists – I feel like I’m poaching on The Books That Time Forgot’s territory.

After writing the first draft of this, I checked out Ing’s Wikipedia page. He died on June 21, 2020.

Review: Systemic Shock, Dean Ing, 1981.

Cover by Paul Alexander

As Spider Robinson once noted in a review of an Ing work, Ing’s something of a moralistic writer. And there’s no doubt about the main moral of this story. It’s right there on the front page quote in the original Ace paperback:

Governments across the globe ducked for cover. Long-drilled and partly prepared, millions of RUS urbanites sealed themselves into subway tunnels, then slid blast-and-firestorm-proof hatches into place to ride out the blast-furnace interval. Most Americans were asleep, and in any case had only the sketchiest notion of adequate shelter. A few city dwellers – the smaller the city, the better their chances – sped beyond their suburbs before freeway arterials became clots of blood and machinery.

The American public had by turns ignored and ridiculed its Cassandras, who had warned against our increasing tendency to crowd into our cities. We had always found some solution to our problems, often at the last minute. Firmly anchored in most Americans was the tacit certainty that, even to the problem of nuclear war against population centers, there must be a uniquely American solution; we would find it.

The solution was sudden death. A hundred million Americans found it.”

But this isn’t a Third World War fought with nukes. It’s the Fourth World War fought with nukes.

Continue reading “Systemic Shock”

“The White Hands”

I’m late posting about last week’s subject of discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing. On the other hand, I won’t be posting about this week’s story since I’ve already covered that.

It was a welcome return to Mark Samuels’ work.

Review: “The White Hands”, Mark Samuels, 2003.

This story is narrated by a scholar of weird fiction. His particular interests are Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. He relates his experiences with one Alfred Musswell, a disgraced and odd and former Oxford professor. 

The story starts out with a quote from a former student of Musswell. Musswell “attempted single-handedly to alter the academic criteria of excellence in literature”, and wanted to eradicate the “tyranny of materialism and realism” from literature. He urged students to read Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, M. R. James, and Lilith Blake.

As I said, he’s rather odd. He prowls the Oxford streets at night. He always has gloved hands and often a “somewhat disturbing” look. 

Muswell first popularized his views in the small press American fantasy magazine The Necrophile. Like H. P. Lovecraft, he argued against “anthropocentric concerns of realism”.  Literature should contemplate the infinite. 

Continue reading ““The White Hands””

War Stories from the Future

After finishing Burn-In, I decided to read this book since it also has a story from that novel’s co-author August Cole.

I thought it was one of the many books I got a review copy of and hadn’t reviewed yet, so I thought I’d chip another bit off that list.

It turns out it was just a freebie from the Atlantic Council, and you can get your free copy at the link below.

Review: War Stories from the Future, ed. August Cole, 2015.

Cover by Sam Cole

You don’t usually see a Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States of America introducing a science fiction anthology, but Martin Dempsey was just that. He has a master’s degree in English and praises sf not for its predictive abilities but its provocation and power to develop “the professional imagination” and as “a mental laboratory”.

The book proved weirdly appropriate for the age of COVID – at least as presented in the panicked minds of the Sanitary Dictatorship in charge of various countries and their propaganda organs.

A Visit to Weizenbaum” from Jamie Metzel gives us a story where the use of tailored bioweapons requires Isolation Soldiers. They live in very sealed compounds for 18 months, their bodies monitored for signs of infection and entertained with virtual reality systems. Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn’t that interesting. It’s a therapy session with a soldier missing his beloved Elizabeth.

Continue reading “War Stories from the Future”

Histories of a Plague Year

Regular readers of this blog know I’m not given to picking my reading based on bestsellers, hype, popularity or any contemporary trend.

However, I did engage in a bit of “COVID reading” back in April. Actually, I just wanted toread another Black Plague book, one of the few unread in my library.

So let’s look at the Sanitary Dictatorship circa 1630-31. Readers may recognize it from our current versions: shut businesses, informers, and house arrest.

Review: Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and Imaginary in Baroque Florence, Giulia Calvi, trans. Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., 1989.

While the bubonic plague that came to Florence in 1630-31 wasn’t quite as deadly as the second European pandemic of the plague in 1347, it still killed between 20 and 60 percent of those infected.

Florence was prepared for the return of the plague. It never really left Europe since 1347.

They formed the Florentine Public Health. When plague hit the city, Public Health initiated a series of laws regarding entry to the city, identification of infected people, isolating them, treating them, and, all too often, burying them.

What could be the problem? It seems so sensible – apart from the fact that doctors, barber-surgeons, and herbalists had no clue what caused the disease.

Continue reading “Histories of a Plague Year”

The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique, 2nd Edition, Brian Stableford, 2016, 2017.

Cover by Timothee Rouxel

This is Stableford’s companion to his four volume New Atlantis series on British scientific romances.

As usual, Stableford writes in a clear way with some nice turns of phrase though he lets some of his snarkiness and sarcasm show at times and has some nice turns of phrase. 

The book starts out in 1657 with Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune [Other Worlds] and goes through 1939. Because of World War Two, little French work was published in the 1940s. Like the British scientific romance, it was subsumed into the dominant American mode of science fiction after the war.

Stableford mentions, as did James Gunn’s in his Alternate Worlds, some of the genres that fed into sf/roman scientifique: traveler’s tales (le merveilleux), imaginary voyages, utopias, and satires. (He talks about how French censorship of books meant many were published with bogus foreign printing information and under pseudonyms.) However, a unique French element was what Voltaire coined contes philosophiques. The interest in telling “fay stories” in the French court also played a role.

Stableford divides his analysis by historical eras and themes within them. 

Continue reading “The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Yesterday Never Dies; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: Yesterday Never Dies: A Romance of Metempsychosis, Brian Stableford, 2012.

There are forbidden books and there are books that are forbidding.  . . . Some texts remain unread because they are so difficult to find, others hide in plain view, unread because they are unreadable. Alas, that does not necessarily mean that there is nothing in them.

So says August Dupin at one point in this story.

This is certainly not a forbidding book and as enjoyable as previous books in the series. It is, so far, the last, and there is an air of conclusion here. And not just of Dupin’s and narrator Reynolds’ story.

As befits a novel concerned with cycles and rebirths, the French Republic is in its last days. Dupin’s friend Lucien Groix, Prefect of the Police, thinks the country on the verge of revolution and that he may have to flee to avoid imprisonment.  

And there is another cycle, a cycle of ghosts.

Continue reading “Yesterday Never Dies; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”