Immortal Life

This blog started out to review science fiction, but it’s been many months since I’ve reviewed a pure science fiction novel. No tinge of the weird, no Lovecraftian elements, no mixed genres in this one.

Review: Immortal Life (A Soon to Be True Story), Stanley Bing, 2017. 

The late Gil Schwartz aka Stanley Bing was a CBS executive who wrote many best-selling books with titles like 100 Bullshit Jobs . . . and How to Get Them, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy, and Executricks, or How to Retire While You’re Still Working. Prior to this he wrote a couple of non-science fiction novels. He was also was a reader of science fiction.

That corporate experience and knowledge of science fiction give this novel a breezy, knowing air without stylistically stumbling the way many non-genre novelists do when wandering into science fiction.

And this book is pure science fiction, a black satire on one of humanity’s oldest obsessions: the quest for immortality.

And Bing is right up front in his dedication about who his targets are:

To Craig Venter, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, and all the visionary titans exploring the possibility of eternal life for those who can afford it. 

Arthur Vogel is definitely one of those who can afford it. At 127, he’s the world’s richest man. His day is a tedious regimen of drugs and supplements and no normal food, walking about on his cyborg legs. His only fun time comes after printing out a penis, popping some pills, and having sex with his hot wife Sallie.

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Searchers after Horror

It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.

Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.

I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.

First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.

In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.

While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 6

Low Res Scan: Black Wings of Cthulhu 6: Twenty-One New Tales of Loveraftian Horror, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2017, 2018

Cover by Gregory Nemec

It was perhaps for the best that this is the last of this series.

My initial negative opinions were mitigated after going back through the stories and making notes. Its weakness isn’t from one thing but a combination of “woke”, predictable, or non-weird stories.

No sorting by theme or literary aesthetic this time. I’m just going to sift the literary wheat from the chaff.

Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Girl in the Attic” was an unexpected disappointment. It’s a sequel to his earlier “The Red Witch of Chorazin” and part of a larger series centering around the very weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t all that enthused by most of the earlier series’ installments. This one seems to involve a time loop involving the Red Witch.

The egregious designation goes to Lynne Jamneck’s “Oude Goden”, It’s a first person tale of a young lesbian in the Washington of the 1920s, and we hit all the expected cliches: violence against homosexuals, references to the Ku Klux Klan, a nonhuman entity being “intersex”, and, worst of all, the ending in which the narrator proclaims she can understand how the homosexuals of the area may have thought the world would be better under the Old Ones.

I know Joshi was very fond of the recently deceased William F. Nolan (whom I met once), but I’ve had mixed experiences to what little of his I’ve read. “Carnivorous” is well done but doesn’t go anywhere you don’t expect. A married couple takes a job tending the plants of an absent woman.  It comes with various bizarre instructions like singing to them on a schedule. There is an admonition to never go into a greenhouse. But the woman doesn’t return, supplies run low, and the husband goes in. I like sinister plant stories, but there’s nothing special here.

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“A Question of Blood”

And, with this entry, David Hambling gets his own separate post even when appearing in an anthology.

Review: “A Question of Blood”, David Hambling, 2016.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

This is another of Hambling’s Norwood tales set in that area of South London in the 1920s though it doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have any links to his Harry Stubbs’ stories or the stories in The Dulwich Horror and Other Stories.

Hambling often takes off on other stories, and here there is, right off the bat, a quote from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”. There are also nods to Edgar Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. And the setup is a kind of darker version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Our narrator is Paul Pennywell, age 21. Upon reaching the age of majority, he got a letter from his solicitor revealing who his grandfather is: a wealthy man named Beaumont living in Norwood.

Upon entering the house, Paul sees a portrait of someone looking very much like his father, Mark Beaumont. But its subject is Matthew Beaumont, Paul’s uncle.

Led into his grandfather’s study, Paul does not find a warm reunion. His grandfather, possessing the air of an Old Testament prophet, is not happy to see Paul and did not ask to see him.

We then get some family history. Matthew was Mark’s twin, born half an hour earlier and, therefore, heir to the estate. But Matthew died without issue at the Battle of Cambrai. Beaumont questions Paul on his drinking, gambling, and sex habits and concludes he did good by sending Paul away to Canada and that, if he continues farming in a good Christian community, he will be all right. 

We then learn the letter the solicitor passed on to Paul was from his mother, long dead, and written for him. She died in a hospital for the “morally defective”. Paull is well aware that his parents were married very soon before he was born. 

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The Dark Beyond the Stars

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz is talking about generation starship stories again.

It’s an interesting theme, one I always intended to read more of.

So, since I’m still working on new reviews, you get this.

Raw Feed (1992): The Dark Beyond the Stars, Frank M. Robinson, 1991. 

Cover by John Harris

Up until the last six paragraphs, I was impressed by how much Robinson got away with in this book. 

He gives us 408 pages of little physical action or violence bolstered with off the shelf sf elements of dubious plausibility:  shadowscreens whose operation is unclear as is how the falsies (virtual reality projections filtered out — not created — by eye masks) work; a centuries old scheme to breed traits of empathy, sensitivity, and nonviolence into a “new” crew (deliberate breeding for personality traits seems barely plausible) [29 years later, I don’t find either of those things improbable]; an obsessed captain whose personality is locked by millennia old “conditioning” (always a pulp favorite — I remember one review of this book emphasizing Robinson’s love of pulp sf and how it show up here); computers that require great manual dexterity to use effectively.

Yet, it moves, it’s thrilling. 

The book reminded me, with its central character of Captain Michael Kusaka, of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with their mad, obsessed, sometimes violent captains. 

The starship venturing for axons also reminded me of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

Robinson gives us a story relying on the quirks and interactions of personalities played (an interesting part is how the recombination of genes through the centuries produces, for Sparrow/Raymond Stone, an echo of previous crew members he’s known) played out (with the case of Stone, Kurasaka, and Thrush) over centuries, long term conspiracies of eugenics and mutiny, the loveliness of being the sole spark of life in the universe, a plausible ship’s culture (lots of sex in this book but it’s not graphic, contrived, or unnecessary), a starship never intended to voyage for longer than 80 years (40 out, 40 back), an Earth vacant of man (very probably, not definitely), the relations of a near immortal to the crew “mayflies”, Sparrow’s discovery of his past lives, constant revelations of intrigue, obsession, and personality. 

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4

After about a year, I decided to finally finish reading S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthology series. Partly, that’s to read some David Hambling tales in later volumes, and partly to finally finish at least one of my reading projects.

Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, S. T. Joshi, 2015, 2016.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

In his “Introduction” to the book, Joshi notes how several stories here rely on a sense of place. He also mentions the anthology’s one poem, Charles Lovecraft’s “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount”, a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”.

In Lovecraft, of course, terrors often come from the past, an idea he inherited from the gothic. Indeed, merely calling something “ancient” in Lovecraft is often used to evoke horror. For me, some of the most memorable tales here are archaeologically themed, an element in Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Out of Time.

Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” is my first exposure to her Cassie Barret series. She’s a former anthropology student who now works on a Wyoming ranch, packs a revolver, and has two Rottweiler dogs for companions. Ranch foreman Frank, perhaps because his grandfather was a Crow “man of power”, appreciates the thinness between dreams and reality. Shortly after a flyer shows up in the mail advertising “THE PIPER WITH A PURPOSE”, a local branch of a non-profit advertising and its “Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community”, they both begin having strange dreams involving coyotes. And the Kokopelli on the flyer seems reminiscent of a sinister version Cassie has seen before. Soon, reluctantly, she gets out the journal of a vanished archaeologist who thinks that particular Kokopelli derives from a far more ancient culture.

Schwader cleverly splices the Cthulhu Mythos into the prehistory of the American Southwest. But, for me, the descriptions of Wyoming and rural poverty evoked things I’ve seen myself, and that made the story richer. Justly renowned as a poet, Schwader proves she’s also a talented fiction writer.

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Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Out of the Deeps

Raw Feed (2005): Out of the Deeps, John Wyndham, 1953. 

Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Wyndham is often referred to as the founder of the “cosy catastrophe” sub-genre, a peculiarly British institution.  He is also said to epitomize post-World War II British fears. This is the first of his disaster novels I’ve read unless you wanted to stretch the point and call his The Midwich Cuckoos a disaster of alien invasion/hybridization. You could also see that novel as a metaphor for the unease of the World War II generation for their youngsters.

You can definitely call this a cosy catastrophe novel. Slickly narrated, this novel is presented as history being written by a radio reporter which allows him to present a personal encounter with the kraken and yet briefly summarive the invasion’s effect on the world and engage in lots of foreshadowing. The aliens who invade Earth, colonize the sea, and make incursions onto coastal areas are never referred to as krakens, but the novel’s original British title, The Kraken Wakes, suggests the word)

The cosiness comes in because, though the narrator and his wife narrowly escape being killed by the krakens in the Caribbean, we don’t get any closeup looks at famine victims, people battling for survival supplies, the triage of survivors, and the struggle for survival that makes the disaster and post-apocalypse sub-genres so compelling. (Wyndham — who wrote sf starting in the 1930s under a variety of names and quite successfully retooled his identity when he changed his pseudonym with The Day of the Triffids — paved the way for John Christopher whose disaster novels are far less cozy.)

We get those things, but the narrator and his wife survive in relative comfort compared to Britain’s woes.  It is those woes, Britain the naval power being denied (with virtually every other nation — though it is strongly hinted at novel’s end that the kraken will be defeated) the use of the sea, that could serve as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war dis-ease.  (Another unexpected sign of this is the complaint of the narrator and a citizen that the government — just like in World War II — doesn’t trust its citizens with weapons to defend themselves.)

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The Midwich Cuckoos

While I get some more new reviews written up, it’s time to look at John Wyndham, another author Science Fiction Ruminations brought up recently.

Raw Feed (1988); The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, 1957. 

Cover by Dean Ellis

To my knowledge, this is the first John Wyndham I’ve read. 

You could have fun finding a sort of feminist subtext in this novel which is to say it would be fun defending an essentially not quite valid premise., One of the central plot features is, of course, the sudden, unexplained, and unwanted pregnancies of most Midwich women, cosmic rape if you will. There are veiled references to abortion. Differences between men and women are discussed in passing. Zellaby talks of women’s arrogance in assuming their perpetual place on Earth. (This goes against feminist ideology, of course, but Zellaby discusses women as Mother.) Zellaby also bewails women not being more independent. 

The novel was surprisingly full of wry wit. The retired major (a minor character) was a bit like a Monty Python character. 

Surprisingly, the narrator was a bit character in the whole drama which gradually gains a sinister, foreboding air. In keeping with Wyndham’s reputation as a writer of “cozy disaster novels”,  there is little, if any, horror here, and I can’t see it rightly being marketed as a horror novel which, as I recall, when I first saw it on the rack many years ago as a child, it was. 

The theme of the story is simple:  to protect “civilization” it may mean compromising its values of peace and justice.  (Very reminiscent of arguments on how to fight terrorism.) Wyndham manages to bring up major questions in a skillful, naturalistic way. 

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