The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued

Looking back in my posts after posting a review of volume six in this series, I see I hadn’t posted anything on volume one. I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, I didn’t make notes on the last story in the book.

That makes this a …

Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2006.Robert Silverberg 1

Introduction” — An interesting introduction to this, the first volume in what Silverberg says is the third attempt to collect his stories. Silverberg continues to amaze me with his prolificness while not working weekends and while in college. Here he casually mentions all the stories, as a professional writer (not working weekends but while in college), he sold in the years 1953-58. He says that he will let his mediocre sports and mystery stories languish. Silverberg is unapologetic about being a hack to fund sf projects he did care about. It was only years later that he discovered that the writers he admired, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon weren’t supporting themselves by in the same way. Leiber had an editorial job. Bradbury sold to the high paying slicks. Sturgeon simply lived near starvation — which Silverberg decidedly didn’t. However, he is happy to reprint his early pulp stories which he thinks show compentency and that he has affection for.

Gorgon Planet” — Silverberg justly points out that this, his first professional sale, is nothing special. But it is pretty good for an eighteen year old, and he’s right in showing that he had an early command of effectively linking exposition and dialogue. The plot itself is a lackluster retelling of the Perseus-Medusa myth in a sf context. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued”

H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

The Lovecraft series continues with a look at S. T. Joshi’s biography of that writer.

Joshi has expanded this 708 page book into 1,200 pages with the updated edition called I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to do my wrists a favor, when I do, and get the kindle edition.

Raw Feed (2005): H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi, 1996, 2004.H P Lovecraft A Life

Joshi is such a concise writer that it would do little good to sum up all the points of interest in this book’s 655 pages of text, and some it, expectedly, repeats Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft and H. P. Lovecraft:  The Decline of the West. Since Joshi sums up all of Lovecraft’s fiction including some of his most important revisions, I think this book comes about as close as you can get to a one volume introduction to Lovecraft without reading his work.

He gives brief summaries of Lovecraft’s most important correspondents and professional contacts, the magazines he published in, and other matters related to Lovecraft’s interests, life, and times.

Granted, some of this gets a bit far afield.

Is it really necessary to give a summary of Antarctic exploration when mentioning Lovecraft’s interest in it even though it is, of course, relevant to his “At the Mountains of Madness“?

Still, I learned a lot about Lovecraft. Continue reading “H. P. Lovecraft: A Life”

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

My third and final look at some H. Beam Piper works.

Raw Feed (2002): Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, H. Beam Piper, 1965.Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

This was a fairly engaging book.

Its battle sequences were clearer than the action sequences of some of the stories in Piper’s Paratime. I didn’t really try to keep track of the corresponding geographical locations in our world as Lord Kalvan aka Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police builds an empire along this alternate version of the Atlantic coast of America.

Piper does, at one point, give a geographical listing which would make such a reconstruction at least partially possible though no maps are given. I kept thinking I was missing some in-jokes like some of the battle sites were fought on the site of American Civil War or Revolutionary War sites. I suspect Nostor is the same as Georgia since there is a song called “Marching Through Nostor” which sounds suspiciously like “Marching Through Georgia” from our American Civil War.

While this is certainly far from the first work of military sf or even (probably) the first sf work where a man displaced from his time or dimension builds an empire with his technological and historical knowledge, I suspect it was influential on Piper’s friend Jerry Pournelle and others. Continue reading “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen”

Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places

The alternate history series continues with yet another Turtledove collection.

Yes, I’ve covered two-thirds of the material before.

Raw Feed (2002): Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places, ed. Harry Turtledove, 1999.down-in-the-bottomlands

Down in the Bottomlands“, Harry Turtledove — Apart from Turtledove’s Sim World series and Harry Harrison’s Eden series, there are few alternate histories that use, as their deviation point, an event of natural history rather than recorded human social and political history. This is one of those stories. It postulates that a chain of barrier mountains closes off the Mediterranean Basin from the Atlantic Ocean and that it dries up to form the deep, dry, landlocked Bottomlands, (Death Valley on a big scale). Turtledove does little, by way of alternate history, with the idea. The Krepalgan Unity (roughly the area of modern France, Spain, and Portugal) hatch a scheme, using buried nukes, to geologically breach the mountains between the Atlantic and the Bottomlands thereby flooding it so they gain sea access and Tarteshan, the nation of the hero Radnal vez Krobir, being deprived of the mineral resources of the Bottomlands. The plot reminded me of an Alastair Maclean novel (specifically his Night Without End in plot and Goodbye, California with its scheme to use earthquake inducing nukes) with its murder of a secret agent in the midst of a Bottomlands tour group and Radnal being pressed into service to detect and capture the murderers (the rather obvious suspects of Lofosa and Evillia given their reflexive prowess in unarmed combat) and find the nukes. We get little sense on how humanity’s history has changed in what appears to be a time contemporary to ours apart from that nudity taboos have altered, no Christianity appears present, brides are bought in Tarteshan and tortured in its pragmatic justice system. I don’t know enough about botany and zoology to comment on the animals and plants of the Bottomlands and their relation to our world. It’s an engaging enough story and the Bottomlands are an interesting jumping off point to an alternate history of the supercontinent of Africa, Europe, and Asia, but Turtledove doesn’t do much with it apart from the adventure plot of Radnal foiling the attempt to flood the Bottomlands and being rewarded with a title and the friendship of a noblewoman who is the niece of the tyrant of Tarteshan.

The Wheels of If“, L. Sprague de Camp — This is the second time I’ve read this story. This time I was struck by its similarity to de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall in that both feature intrepid and ingenious protagonist thrust into a strange world and remake it for their own ends. The ultra competent protagonist Park is very much in the competent man tradition of Heinlein and the Golden Age: he learns languages, researches his historical place, fights a war, outwits violent political faction, and leads a double life as a political party organizer and bishop. (Though he doesn’t do much like with technology unlike the protagonist of Lest Darkness Fall.) It’s also interesting to note that, given this early stage in the development of the alternate history sub-genre, de Camp spends the opening four and a half pages on covering the real historical events that the world of his story deviates from: King Oswiu of Northumbria accepts the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope rather than the Celtic Christian Church, and Moslems lose the Battle of Tours. Now days, an alternate history would probably take much less space to cover the hinge events of the fictional timeline or just allude to them in passing. Continue reading “Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places”

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”

The Pugnacious Peacemaker & The Wheels of If

The alternate history series.

Raw Feed (1991): “The Pugnacious Peacemaker”, Harry Turtledove and “The Wheels of If”, L. Sprague de Camp, 1990.pugnacious-peacemaker
The Wheels of If” — On a historical level it’s notable for being, I believe, one of the first alternate world stories. But it also works for the modern, naïve reader.

One can quibble, as you always can in alternate world stories, over the author’s speculations on what may have happened in history if a couple of events had turned out differently.

Interestingly, de Camp picked two turning points seldom, if ever, used in alternate world stories even now: Arabs winning the Battle of Tours — a battle whose importance is widely recognized, and the obscure event of King Oswiu of Northumbria choosing not to accept Rome’s authority over the Celtic Church. Would the Indians have adopted European technology and military tactics? Wouldn’t they (as William MacNeill pointed out in Plagues and People) been wiped out by European disease even if European gunpowder wasn’t around? Would this world’s parliamentary procedure and legal system so closely match our own?

But one can argue many interpretations of history with equal validity much less the speculations of alternate history. Also, historical knowledge, theories, and interpretations change through time. This story, after all, is 50 years old. Continue reading “The Pugnacious Peacemaker & The Wheels of If”

What Might Have Been, Vol. 4

The conclusion of the Raw Feed series on the alternate history anthology series.
Raw Feed (1993): What Might Have Been, Volume 4: Alternate Americas, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1992.Alternate Americas

“Introduction”, Gregory Benford — Benford’s fair appraisal of Columbus and the effects of European contact with the New World.

Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life”, Harry Turtledove — It’s not that I disagree with Turtledove’s satirical attacks using the conceit that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella assembled a commission to look at Christopher Columbus’ proposed voyage to the New World. I agree with all his criticisms on the timidity of modern Americans, their refusal to run personal risks even with the chance of great gain, their obsession with personal safety and alleged environmental hazards, their technological pessimism, their pouring of money and resources into the rathole of social programs instead of space travel. The opponents of Columbus think his success would lead to inflation without more goods and services, but the story is boring and dull and not really even a story.

Ink From the New Moon”, A.A. Attanasio — I liked a few things about this story: its attempt to imitate an Oriental style, some of its humor (America still has the USA but here it’s the United Sandalwood Autocracies, and I liked Europeans being called Big Noses), and the end where the oriental native returns to Europe with Columbus. And I liked the whole idea of China colonizing America first via Buddhists who flee persecution in the Sung Dynasty. (Eventually, they break away from the Empire.) However, I didn’t really like the poetic/mystic ruminations on life and his relationship with his dead wife all expressed in thick, purple quasi-Oriental prose. He talks of falling, after he is hurled into the sky in an explosion, into emptiness, an emptiness that is a new freedom and that all reality floats in, that “mystery is the preeminent condition of human being”, that this freedom is the knowledge of utter loneliness and rootlessness. Is this existentialism with an Oriental face? I know its annoying and uninvolving as an explanation for the narrator to take off with Columbus.

Vinland the Dream”, Kim Stanley Robinson — This isn’t really an alternate history but a rumination on the study of history, history’s meaning and social value. I liked the central premise: that an unknown hoaxer (and I liked that his identity and character are never truly known) in the early 19th century created the elaborate illusion, through forged documents and fake archaeological sites, that there was a Viking presence in the New World. Robinson’s usual experimentation with style is here. The story is structured on the lines of a scientific paper. But I disagree strongly with the underlying philosophical message (similar to that in John Carr’s What Is History?) that history is ultimately unknowable, that it is less important that certain historical “stories” are true or false than that “certain qualities in the stories … make them true or false”. This is history as myth and propaganda and edifying and cautionary literature. Fictions can have some deep truth or edifying moral or pragmatic warnings. But history, as imperfect as it is, as provisional as the knowledge of the past is, isn’t the place for willful lies whatever the purpose. Just because the noble pursuit of the historian sometimes becomes tainted with willful lies or unknowing errors isn’t a reason to abandon the quest for the ideal.

If There Be Cause”, Sheila Finch — An overly long, usually dull alternate history based on the presumption that Francis Drake landed (as near as I can figure out) around San Francisco Bay and influenced the local tribes. Specifically, they instill in them a hatred for the soon-to-be-encroaching Spanish and teach them the rudiments of firearms and making wine. This story has one of those young woman (it could just as easily been a young man) learning to take her place as a shaman and learning the hard responsibilities of leadership. Here she oversees a war against the Spanish and kills her lover from another tribe who helps the Spanish and callously lets them kill her brother, “hard destiny” as the story calls her role.

“Isabella of Castile Answers Her Mail”, James Morrow — I didn’t hate this story unlike all the other Morrow I’ve read. I even liked a few things in this tale of culture shock as Columbus time-travels to modern New York. Columbus is horrified by the grotesque imagery of the “idol” of the Statute of Liberty, her inscription, seeming to point to human sacrifices in the pursuit of libertinism. Columbus is horrified at the sexual mores of his native Cuban New Yorker guide. He is also horrified at his guide’s brand of Catholicism, and the presence of wealthy, respected Jews in New York. However, there is the usual liberal tendencies of Morrow, here manifested by a comparison between New York’s homeless and the persecuted Jews of Columbus’ Spain.

Let Time Shape”, George Zebrowski — Like Zebrowski’s “The Number of the Sand”, this densely philosophical story considers a Panoptican civilization where all the variations of history are studied. Everything — fact, fiction, supposition, the human genome – is fed into a vast computer used to study history, and, here to place the observer in the virtual presence of a significant historical personage. All this in an attempt to find the crucial people of history, the variants which really are significant. Here Zebrowski envisions Christopher Columbus meeting a very superior (seemingly at about a twentieth century level) New World founded by the refugees from Carthage. They’re still bent on destroying Rome and its spiritual heir of the Holy Roman Empire. England has a secret alliance with the Carthaginians. The ambitious Columbus, smarting at the insults and delays caused by the Spanish aristocracy, sides with the Carthaginians in attacking the “Spanish-Italian empire”. It’s an interesting premise, but Zebrowski also manages to link the story to the spiritual plight of an unnamed observer in the Panoptica and his civilization itself. If I am reading the story right, the observer’s civilization is trapped in a psychic and spiritual dead-end, decadent. Their recent history consists of watching similar observers in other timelines, of standing aside from history, creeping along at a trivial pace, longing for a quantum transformation but unable or unwilling to find the means in all the observed histories. It’s no wonder the historian thrills to his vicarious possession of Columbus, that he longs to shape history too. But he is not one of history’s rare, finite (in an infinity of variants) significant personalities. A lot of good stuff here: alternate history and far future ennui.

Red Alert”, Jerry Oltion — Essentially a joke story with Red Wing, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo as fighter pilots combatting other pilots like George Armstrong Custer. There’s also the clever pun of the title and non-lethal coup missiles (air to air) used by the Indians. It’s too long too be carried by its jokes, and its too implausible. We’re not only asked to believe a level of American technology accelerated a hundred years ahead of our timeline but that Indians developed a scientific culture that matched that rate.

Such a Deal”, Esther M. Friesner — This is essentially – as befits Friesner – a joke story with a gruesome final punchline. Its humor was sustained throughout but not really enough to make me laugh out loud often. The story itself involves Columbus being financed by Jews and bringing back a contingent of Aztec warriors from the New World to help Spanish Jews overthrow Ferninand and Isabella and stop the Inquisition.

Looking for the Fountain”, Robert Silverberg — As always for Silverberg, this is an engaging, clearly written story. There is humor here of a subtle sort. The Fountain of Youth turns out to be a misnomer. It’s a cure for impotence. The narrator likes to constantly say “Trust me: I was there.” The central idea isn’t humorous, in fact poignant. A group of Frankish crusaders is blown off course, across the Atlantic, and on to the shores of Florida. They intermarry with the natives, convert them to Christianity. The crusading zeal is kept alive by the tribe until Ponce de Leon arrives looking for the Fountain of Manly Strength. They take him to it, though in retrospect the narrator believes they may just have been offering baptism. In return, Ponce de Leon is to bring them ships so they can go free Jerusalem. When he doesn’t return (no one believes he found the Fountain of Youth so he can’t sell the water he takes from the fountain) with the ships, the tribe fiercely turns on other Europeans they regard as false Christians.

The Round-Eyed Barbarians”, L. Sprague de Camp — De Camp takes a very obvious (and surprisingly little used) turning point in history. Unlike our timelines where the Chinese launch seven expeditions using sophisticated ships and compasses in the early fifteenth century under the Ming dynasty and then mysteriously, suddenly stop, they continue with their expeditions in this alternate history. Eventually colonists from this China meet their technological inferiors with European explorers following in the wake of Columbus. However, most of this story concerns itself with culture clash. I suppose that’s an obvious thing to consider given the setup, but I’d have liked more long term exploration of the premise.

Destination Indies”, Brad Linaweaver — This was a disappointment, especially after the author’s excellent novel Moon of Ice. This entire story with Columbus’ rival the Dark Duke, Atlanteans, and the constantly abused narrator who is also Columbus’ Loyal sidekick (he graduated from St. Pedro’s Academy for Loyal Sidekicks) reminded me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark like movie in that novel. It was humorous and captured the flavor of a serial with its suddenly exploding volcano and ending of “To be continued indefinitely”, but it also represents an increasing corruption of the alternate history concept. While this story could be construed (though I don’t see any evidence of this) as an historical drama from a bizarre alternate timeline or a piece of fiction from an alternate universe. But its easier to just see it as an absurdist fantasy that happens to use historical characters in way that is not at all derived from an extrapolation of historical divergence. More and more alternate history writers seem to be writing fables and absurdist fantasies using history as inspiration and characters, but not using the sub-genre for rigorous (or not so rigorous) extrapolation, as a fictional lab for talking about the importance of technology, accidents, personages, and social forces in history.

Ship Full of Jews”, Barry Malzberg — Just when I thought I could get to like Malzberg’s alternate history, he writes this piece of crap that doesn’t work on any level. The story has Christopher Columbus taking a ship full of deported Jews to the New World along with a ship full on converts under the control of Torquemada. In Malzberg style, there are a lot of internal monologues with Columbus that detail his ambition and lust for Isabella. There seems to be some implication that Torquemada intends to literally offer the Jews as sacrifice in the New World as a sanctification. There also seems to be some implication that Columbus is, as one Jew says, “in the control of larger forces”. There seems to be the darker implication that the New World will not become a place of freedom in this world but will be a grim place founded in blood by the fanatical Torquemada, a very different New World. The trouble is that Malzberg’s prose is so muddled that none of this is made clear enough to derive a true thematic statement from or even a clever plot.

The Karamazov Caper”, Gordon Eklund — I liked a lot of things in this story: its grim tone, its grim setting (Alaska is not a site often used in alternate histories), its murder investigation plot, its alternate history involving Russian exploration of Alaska, another subject little discussed in fiction or non-fiction. The turning point is Pope Innocent VIII being murdered in this time line and his successor institutes a “Reign of Ignorance and Dread” that kicks off a genocide of the Jews and the Germans killing Indians of the New World. Columbus, being a Jew, is killed after returning from the New World and further voyages there are banned. Bering is credited with discovering the New World, and its personages. Trotsky is a police investigator for the Czar). However, Eklund throws it all away with his ending. He never really explains why the Indians killed two babies and ate their hearts. Is it revenge for German atrocities in America? If it is, why does Trotsky go along with the cover-up? Out of sympathy for the Indians?

The Sleeping Serpent”, Pamela Sargent. One of the best stories in this book. This book simply postulates a Mongol Empire that got bigger than in our world and endured. The plot involves a Khan’s son coming to the Empire’s holdings in America, forming an alliance with the Iroquois and their confederates. He regards the Indians with special reverence as his genetic relatives – they came via the Asian landbridge – and because they embody what he regards as original Mongol virtues unlike the decadent Empire. The son breaks away from the Empire to form his own Khanate. This story makes me heartily thankful the brutal Mongol’s did not endure. However, the story’s narrator makes clear the Indian’s style of government is more democratic than Mongol tradition, and that the new Indian allies may be tainted by the new warfare the Mongols bring. The story is lean (despite its length), engaging, and thought provoking in the effect the Mongol’s might have had on history.

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The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading “The Fantasy Hall of Fame”

Federation

The occasion for reading some H. Beam Piper was his influence on William Barton who I’ve posted a couple of reviews of.

Piper was an interesting author and, except for a bad and disorganized agent, probably would have become a major figure in science fiction instead of what can be regarded as a second tier author.

The version I’ve heard is that Piper, despondent over his financial difficulties, committed suicide — not knowing that his deceased agent actually had sold several of his stories and there was money in the pipeline. He spread some painter’s drop clothes on the floor, took a gun from his collection, and shot himself. (His wiki bio gives different motives though.)

A retro review from September 12, 2008 …

Review: Federation, ed. John Carr, 1981.Federation

These stories are from the time when computers were huge and stupid, when you took your DNA the way you found it, when we were sure there were a bunch of aliens waiting to be met, and you could engineer a culture the way you engineered a bridge. In other words, these stories are all about fifty years old, and you have to make some mental allowances for when, say, characters drag out that ancient bit of technology – the photostat.

If you do that, you’ll be entertained by one of the great practitioners of adventure science fiction, the man who created the popular Little Fuzzy series. The stories in this collection are set in the same universe, Piper’s TerroHuman Future History, specifically during its early days. Aliens are central to most of the stories whether it’s deciphering their history, attempting communication with them, or manipulating their culture.

Piper was a great student of history and often makes specific allusions to the historical event inspiring a certain story. But the plots come off as credible and still readable instead of shoddy analogies with the past.

“Omnilingual” is perhaps Piper’s most famous short story. Its account of finding a Rosetta Stone to decipher the language of dead Martians is mixed with evocative accounts of their ruins and final struggles. “Naudsonce” is one of those alien puzzle anthropology stories. Here the puzzle is whether an alien race is telepathic or just has an astonishingly inconsistent language. The solution is credible and lies in the aliens’ physiology. This is perhaps the only story in the collection not inspired by some bit of history.

“Oomphel in the Sky” seems inspired by what anthropologists call “revitalization movements” similar to the American Indian’s Ghost Dance of the late 1800s. The aliens of Kwannon start murdering and burning out human colonists in preparation for the Last Hot Time, an anticipation of the planet approaching perihelion with one of the system’s suns. In the grand manner of an Astounding story of the time, our hero fixes their culture and fixes the problem. He also has to contend with neo-Marxists in the Native Welfare Commission who are hostile to his plan and critical of the general efficiency of the military and private enterprise in providing for the Commission’s native charges. While sympathetic to Piper’s side of the debate, this story, in some ways, seemed to me the most dated in the book. If the story were written now, the bureaucrats would not be denouncing the influence of Kwannon priests (a la a 1950s Marxist denounciation of religion holding the masses back from their inevitable destiny) but celebrating their diversity – whatever its effects. It’s Piper’s hero that is most respectful of the aliens’ innate abilities if not their specific beliefs. It’s all about working with and accepting “social forces”, alien or human, rather than working against them.

“Graveyard of Dreams” is a melancholy story with a hopeful end that has a bit of the air of cargo cults about it. Poictesme’s residents try to hold off their economic decline by scavenging the huge amount of military hardware left behind after a Federation civil war. Their ultimate quest is for a huge, sophisticated battle computer, the alleged key to Federation victory.

“When in the Course – ” is something of an anomaly. Never published in Piper’s lifetime because Astounding‘s editor John W. Campbell rejected the story and its implausible element of parallel evolution, half of it was cannibalized to become part of Piper’s Paratime series, specifically part of the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. The flavor of the story is similar to that novel with also something of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. A group of humans land on Freya, their last chance to get a profitable colonial charter. They introduce all sorts of innovations – like secret police and propaganda as well as gunpowder production – to the natives so they can get a treaty for their company and the natives can throw off a local religious tyranny.

Piper’s work is all in the public domain and freely available online. However, this collection is worth buying for Carr’s attempt to piece together Piper’s future history with its cycles of war, barbarism, expansion, and decline. It was a vast project Piper planned and, unfortunately, since many of his papers vanished after his suicide, the chronology of the series is not always obvious.

 

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Science Fictional Olympics

Another retro review and, oddly, a relatively popular one.

This one is from September 24, 2000.

My older, wiser self would no longer say 1984 was “the height of the Cold War”. Better candidates would be the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or 1983 when Yuri Andropov almost nuked us because of, among other things, activity in meat packing plants.

And wrestling promoters did start their own football league — the short-lived XFL.

Review: Science Fictional Olympics: Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #2: , eds. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles Waugh, 1984.

Olympic contests between the Soviet bloc and America were often exploited for propaganda purposes, the outcome of an athletic event supposedly saying something significant about the victor’s country. This 1984 anthology, from the height of the Cold War, has several stories built around that notion.Science Fictional Olympics

Tom Sullivan’s “The Mickey Mouse Olympics” and Nicholas V. Yermakov’s “A Glint of Gold” both feature Soviet and American Olympic athletes genetically modified for their events. Sullivan plays the notion for genuine laughs. Yermakov’s story is much more serious and shows the price the competitors pay as propaganda pawns. He also works in a defection subplot. Continue reading “Science Fictional Olympics”