“Detective of Dreams”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Detective of Dreams”, Gene Wolfe, 1980.Dark-Forces

This story was first published in Kirby McCauley’s seminal Dark Forces anthology.

I admit I came to it expecting to be annoyed and disappointed, and I finished it annoyed.

I am not fond of Wolfe’s sometimes obliqueness and stories-within-stories plot. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that Wolfe is a writer for smart people. Such talk of any writer strikes me as reader vanity.

However, my annoyance was somewhat unfair, primed by the expectation that this would be what I call a weird story other than just a story packed with Christian symbology – though not a true allegory. After all, winning the vote to be discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group doesn’t make a story automatically weird, and it’s hardly Wolfe’s fault we came to him expecting one. Continue reading ““Detective of Dreams””

“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””

Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF”

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 2”

Roads Not Taken

In an alternate history, I would actually have a new essay for you — even if about old stuff.

In the world you inhabit, you just get this.

Raw Feed (2000): Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History, eds. Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt, 1998.roads-not-taken

What Is Alternate History”, Shelly Shapiro — Shapiro, an editor at Del Rey books (publishers on this anthology and several alternate history books) writes an informative, if short, introduction to the subgenre. I’d heard that the first alternate history dates to a French speculation, in 1836, about Napoleon. However, I had not heard of the first English-language alternate history, 1895’s Aristopia by Castello Holford nor had I heard of Nat Schachner’s “Ancestral Voices”, a pulp sf alternate history from Dec. 1933’s Astounding. It predates Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time”. Both stories are predated by the scholarly alternate history anthology, If It Had Happened Otherwise ed. by John Squire.

Must and Shall”, Harry Turtledove — Turtledove uses devices characteristic of many of his short alternate histories to present an uncharacteristic alternate Civil War tale. The turning point here, presented in the opening page, is that Abraham Lincoln is killed on July 12, 1864 at the battle of Fort Stevens outside of Washington, D.C., a battle he really did attend in our timeline. He is succeeded by vice-president Hannibal Hamlin, a man far more vengeful towards the South than Andrew Johnson, who became Lincoln’s vice-president after the 1864 election. The main story takes place in the New Orleans of 1942. Two FBS agents investigate a seditious conspiracy amongst Southern whites, a conspiracy armed by Nazi agents. We see the vicious repression of the defeated whites, repression partially supported by the descendants of freed blacks. The counter-espionage story is typical of Turtledove’s short alternate histories. An FBS agent does consider the notion that the South should not have been so harshly punished, that a new armed rebellion is perhaps inevitable, but is determined to quell domestic dissent in order to “get on with the business of getting rid of tyrants around the world”, a comment he makes “without irony”. As a final dark commentary on this world, Turtledove presents a surprising definition of the acronym FBS. I thought it stood for something like Federal Bureau of Security, but, no, we find out, at story’s end, it stands for Federal Bureau of Suppression.

An Outpost of the Empire”, Robert Silverberg — This is part of Silverberg’s Roma Eterna alternate history series. It is based on the notion that the Exodus of the Israelites failed at the Red Sea. This is certainly not evident in this story. All I could tell was that the history of the eastern and western branches of the Roman Empire was certainly very different from our timeline and that there is no mention of Christianity. The revived Empire has spread to the New World. The story is a poignant, realistic look at human nature. A proud, young widow of Byzantium initially despises the new proconsul. Technically, the old Byzantium Empire has been reunited with Rome. De facto, she’s right in that her Venatia (Venice) has been conquered by Rome. Haughtily, she fends off the advances of the proconsul, sure he’s uncultured, ignorant, a brute. She finds he is intelligent, intimidatingly well-traveled and educated. She is so proud of having visited Constantinople when young – for him, it was just a stopover on a diplomatic mission to China. She is sure he will be arrogant, a dominant lout in bed, that he despises Greeks. He is kind, skilled in lovemaking, and, in sort of a version of “the white man’s burden”, thinks highly of the Greek arts but finds them incapable of governing themselves. It is the Romans’ burden to shoulder the boring duties of governance and administration for which they are highly suited. On his way up the cursus honorum, the proconsul must leave the widow who now realizes that Rome is the future, Byzantium pride unfounded, and that she must bow to the new rulers of the world. Silverberg well captures the attraction and hate we can simultaneously feel towards those with gifts we admire. Continue reading “Roads Not Taken”

Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

I was in Texas a couple of months ago, so I took along this novel for its Texas setting.

I had been looking at it for years in Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. An atypical plot and setting for Harness made me reluctant to buy it, and I also hadn’t read all of his earlier novels. (I still haven’t read The Catalyst and Krono.) I finally bought it about a year-and-a-half ago.

Review: Cybele, with Bluebonnets, Charles L. Harness, 2002.Cybele, with Bluebonnets

Harness’ last novel is atypical and familiar, charming and enticing in its episodes, and memorable in its overarching story of a deep love that survives death.

Harness’ final novel is a masterpiece in that it skillfully weds his most characteristic theme, what George Zebrowski’s introduction calls “the denial of death and the power of hope”, to a plot that transforms the “dreams and what-might-have-beens” from Harness’ life to “artful alternate realities”.

The milestones of Harness’ early life are here. Birth in Colorado City, Texas in 1915, a move to Fort West (which seems to be Fort Worth in its proximity to Dallas), Texas; an early interest in chemistry; a brief foray into seminary at the behest of his mother; employment as a fingerprint technician in the red light district of Fort Worth; employment at the U. S. Bureau of Mines during World War II, and eventually becoming a patent attorney. Oddly enough, Harness makes no reference to the early death of his older brother which shows up in other novels.

There are asides on Texas history and chemistry – lots of chemistry since Harness was a trained chemist. Continue reading “Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

“Sailing to Byzantium” & “Seven American Nights”

More Silverberg and some Gene Wolfe.

Sailing to Byzantium

Raw Feed (1989): “Sailing to Byzantium”, Robert Silverberg/”Seven American Nights”, Gene Wolfe, 1989.

Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights” — This story started out with promise but eventually ended with no resolution. Gene Wolfe leaves us with tantalizing bits of story involving mutation, obsessive love, secrets beneath Mount Rushmore, and the unreliability of perception and its shaping by desire. In the end, Wolfe leaves us with a largely unresolved mystery that sputters to a murky anticlimax. Initially, I thought I was in for a treat along the lines of Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent”, a future sf story from the standpoint of a blighted United States. This story had some of that charm and power but only dimly.

Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium” — Like his “Born With the Dead” this is another of Silverberg’s technical exercises in translating a classical work of literature, here W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”. Like “Born With the Dead”, this story has an eerie, fantastical, airy feel about which contrasts weirdly with Silverberg’s lush descriptions (which show his expertise in archaeology — he wrote several non-fiction books on the subject). Like “Born with the Dead”, one never has the sf wonders explained. We only see the idle, immortal travelers not the planners (who seem oblivious to their mythological and anachronistic mistakes) though they may be the robots we see. We also never find out how the research for the building of the five cities is done, but it is an imaginative, baroque concept disturbingly accented by strange, seemingly shallow future jetsetters who flit from city to city. Once again, Silverberg does a good job showing the emotional effect of immortality. The reasoning Charlie Phillips uses to say his robot self is as human as any human is well-stated but nothing special.

 

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

Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City“. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth“. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night“. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 3”