Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Subterranean Press’

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

Balfour_and_Meriwether_in_the_Incident_of_the_Harrowmoor_Dogs_270_396

Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.

All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.

The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.

Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

July 27, 2013 1 comment

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a second novella in the Eternal Sky series, a prequel to Bones and Jewel Creatures where we first met Bijou, one of the Wizards of Messaline. Her magical ability is as an Artificer. She makes creatures out of bones and jewels, animating then with her breath, guiding them with her mind. These creatures are more than mere puppets. They are extensions of her mind. In this elegantly produced book from Subterranean Press, we find her in a more stable form of relationship with Kaulas the Necromancer and Prince Salih as they are approached for help by a newly arrived trio: Maledysaunte, Salamander and Riordan. They want help to enter Ancient Erem in pursuit of Dr Liebelos who has has two claims to fame. She’s the mother of Salamander and a magician with the rare gift of Precisianism, the gift of making “things” orderly, sometimes permanently so. Although our heroine and her two companions suspect there’s a lot left unsaid in this request for help, they understand that anyone who has the power to enter Ancient Erem may be able to cause serious (and permanent) disruption to their world. Preparing for the worst, they therefore make arrangements to lead their visitors into this most dangerous of places.

This is a fascinating insight into the history of the relationship between the world and Erem, highlighting the way in which magic and technology remain intertwined. In the human world, the vestiges of oil-powered land and air transport remain functional but in such short supply, their use is only for those of high status and power. So Prince Salih, the second son of the local potentate, has a motor car for use when he needs to travel over distance at speed. But when it comes to entering Ancient Erem, they must ride on the backs of dead animals, reanimated for the purpose. Each side of the coin has its uses when something needs to be done. Within Erem itself, the ghuls or dog-men move around on the surface at night. Who knows what dangers may lurk below. From this you’ll understand there’s a curious transition between the human world and the entirely different Erem. Although it may have an oxygen environment similar to the human world, i.e. it supports life, the stars are different and the multiple suns are death to anyone caught out in the daylight. That leaves most of the life in underground caves. Fortunately, electric torches work as well as the more ancient forms of magic. As you’ll no doubt gather from the title, the point of the pursuit into Erem is to decide who shall control the Book of Iron, one of the oldest texts of magic ever created. As with all things magical, nothing is ever straightforward and sometimes painful decisions have to be made when the order of the worlds may be at stake.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

At its heart, the Book of Iron is a story about relationships. In particular, it asks what precisely we might understand by the concept of friendship. Obviously, it’s rather different to the love a child might feel towards a parent because that’s not something originating through choice. Individuals choose to become friends. They come to care about each other, assuming some degree of responsibility for the welfare of each other. It’s possible this will involve some degree of intimacy but it’s not necessary for this to be sexual. Put the other way round, a couple could be lovers in the physical sense but not strictly speaking friends. Physical attraction and the need to possess another for a period of time is not the same as friendship which adds value by sharing ideas and interests. So here we have two trios, both of which have been stable until they come together in stressful times. The “adventure” they share and its outcome forces the survivors to reconsider their relationships. Perhaps existing friendships can survive, but sexual relationships might have to be rethought. Maybe new friendships might form as old friendships are destroyed. When it comes down to the survival of individuals and the fate of the worlds, hard decisions may have unexpected social consequences.

The result of this rumination is an acceptance of delight. Book of Iron is a most pleasing fantasy novella which balances action against the exploration of the human heart. Fortunately, it’s the heart that wins out.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Subterranean Press edition is by Maurizio Manzieri.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams

Diary_of_a_Dragon_by_Tad_Williams_270_420

Value is one of these rather annoying words where meaning can change quite significantly depending on the context in which it’s used. If we start off in personal terms, we may have moral or ethical values as the basis for deciding whether to do or refrain from doing anything, i.e. they represent a set of preferences against which we judge whether we should act. However, these values may take on a more imperative nature if they are shared by the majority of people in our community. Indeed Kant argues that if the given moral value is recognised as valid and applied by the majority, it becomes an obligation. If social enforcement is insufficient to ensure compliance, law-makers can enshrine the value in laws and use punishment as the means of enforcement or award compensation to those who are damaged by noncompliance. But if we move into economics, we begin to talk about measuring value by reference to a currency or equivalent medium of exchange, i.e. there is assumed to be a link between value and the price people are prepared to pay for the goods or services.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

Applying this, I might well see aesthetic value in a work of art that few others might see. If there was little or no demand, I might acquire the object of subjective value for a small monetary payment. But if the majority see intangible value in the goods or services, they will pay more to acquire it. Going back through my collecting years, I think the smallest book I bought new was Ringtime by Thomas M Disch. It was published by Toothpaste Press and cost $35 in 1983 for 40 pages, signed and limited to 100 copies. In my defence, I was collecting Disch and it was a rather beautiful production. All of which brings me to Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams (Subterranean Press, 2013). It sells as an ebook for $3.99. As a paperback chapbook limited to 750 copies, it sells for $15. It has 64 pages with the cover and extensive interior illustrations by William Eakin. But don’t let the advertised number of pages deceive you. This is a short story, spread out over the pages with a “nice” piece of design.

So here comes your decision. As short stories featuring a dragon and a princess go, this is elegant and quite witty. The artwork genuinely contributes to the aesthetic value of the production. Indeed, the final sepia panel completes the story in a way words would struggle to match. In other words, this is worth reading and seeing as artistic content. But when we come to economic value, I find myself in trouble. When I bought the limited Toothpaste edition, I realized it was a calculated gamble as to whether it would hold its value. Looking it up on Abebooks, I see a fine copy offered at $350. I’m not convinced it will sell for anything like that (less than $100 is more likely), but you get the idea that it has more than kept its economic value. I don’t believe a paperback chapbook selling for $15 will hold its value. Since I don’t own a Kindle or Nook, I can’t say whether many will buy this at $3.99. But what I can say is that electronic versions cannot be resold, so there’s no residual value. I therefore arrive at the conclusion that only the diehard collectors will buy this slight piece and not worry about the economic cost. For them, just owning it will be value enough.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

The_Gist_by_Michael_Marshall_Smith_270_424

When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.

The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.

The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.

For a review of a collection by Michael Marshall Smith, see Everything You Need.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons

June 7, 2013 1 comment

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz

In a macabre kind of way, it’s actually convenient to come back to this story at this time. Jack Vance has just died. This is saddening. I’ve been reading his work for as long as I’ve been alive. He was ninety-six when he died so had a few years start on me. I discovered him in the early 1960s and never looked back. He was a wonderful writer. A few years ago, in celebration of his contribution to fantasy, we had an outstanding anthology called Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. This was a book of highlights with some truly outstanding stories. One of them was The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2013). To give you an idea of just how good the story is, this limited hardcover edition was sold out almost as soon as the edition was announced. The combination of Dan Simmons and a Jack Vance theme was irresistible.

At this point, I need to rein in my own enthusiasm for a moment and assume you’ve never heard of Jack Vance and therefore could not care a fig that a modern author has revisited one of his worlds. It may even be possible you’ve never heard of Dan Simmons although that’s less likely if you have had any interest in science fiction, fantasy, horror and PI novels over the last twenty-four years. So let’s start with a clean slate and see where it takes us. The sequence we call the Dying Earth began with a short story in 1950. Like Topsy, this just grow’d into a sprawling sequence of novels describing the final days of Earth. As a planet, it has had an eventful history, first seeing the advance of technology and then the emergence of real magic. As the sun slowly loses its power, the population begins to fade away with no new children coming along. People fall back into simpler patterns of life, abandoning the supposed benefits of technology and embracing the natural flow of the world, now including magic. Indeed, it’s often hard to say when science stops and the supernatural begins. What might once have been strongly defined lines blur. Everything is an example of wonder in a fading landscape.

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

At the start of this story, we seem to be entering the final days as the sun grows weaker and struggles to rise over the horizon. Needing someone to blame for this latest catastrophe, the residual citizenry turns to attacking the few magicians they know. Needless to say, the magicians with real power simply relocate and ignore this riotous behavior, but news of the death of Ulfant Banderoz brings many out of hiding. This was the oldest of their number and the man who had established himself as the librarian of his age. Thinking they can now claim this accumulated knowledge for their own, the weak first-callers are destroyed by the residual spells protecting his library. This brings Shrue the Diabolist into play. He’s was the second oldest magician and now feels he should take control of the library for the good of the world. This sends him out into the world where he soon recognizes he has a real rival for access to the library. Thus begins an extended chase and sometimes violent dispute. As to where Shue goes. . . he just follows the nose which somehow seems to know where he should go.

All this represents a delightful allegory. Some seek knowledge for itself, having no purpose other than the satisfaction of curiosity. Others have more selfish motives, believing they are inherently entitled to knowledge so they can demonstrate their primary status. Needless to say, those whose motives are less than pure do not fare so well, while those of a more altruistic outlook prosper. Such is always the way in fairy stories written for adults. Taken overall, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz is simply wonderful both in its own right and, should you have read any Jack Vance, as a recreation of Vancean style and attitude. You should read it. But this may prove difficult because the Subterranean Press limited edition was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. No doubt other editions will follow. However, the source anthology is equally wonderful with many outstanding stories. If you want the maximum value from multiple authors of rare talent, get access to Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois and incidentally enjoy the contribution from Dan Simmons.

For other reviews of books by Dan Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Drood
Flashback
Muse of Fire.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

The Willful Princess

For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.

I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb aka Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden

The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.

The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.

Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.

For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong

March 25, 2013 2 comments

Forbidden by Kelly Armstrong

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press, 2012) is another story featuring Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers in the continuing saga of the Women of the Otherworld. In the moment I write these sentences so full of certainty, it’s easy to forget this is my first look at this author and the only reason I’m able to appear so knowledgeable is because I’ve browsed her website and read the Wikipedia entry. I wish I’d done so before agreeing to review this book. I get lazy, assuming Subterranean Press does not publish Young Adult content. Most of the time, I filter out the fiction aimed at those barely able to read and whose sensibilities are so far removed from my senior years. But, yet again, another teen bestselling author has penetrated my defences so I must grit my teeth and offer my opinion (as if it’s not immediately obvious from these opening words).

The problems for me are many and manifold. I suppose they begin with my general lack of respect for the young. It’s not simply that they are inexperienced. That goes without saying and no generation springs from a god’s head fully formed and able to act like adults from drawing their first breaths. But the present young are so alien to me, they might just as well have been born on a different planet. Sadly, this is reflected in the books intended for them to read. When I was growing up, there were books for children, books written for adults but considered suitable for children to read, and then the books we waited to read. Frankly, what’s now marketed as YA fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. Just as the tests and examinations young students take today are significantly easier than those I had to take, so their fiction is emasculated fiction that patronising adult editors consider it appropriate to give the tender young minds to read. If these books represent what teens are genuinely interested in, I have little faith in the future of the human race. Indeed, I note a great irony. In many serious commentaries and newspapers, I see handwringing pieces bewailing the loss of childhood. It seems our young tots are turning into adults before their time. Well these books tell a very different story. They are beyond innocent, inhabiting some weird world of fantasy make-believe in which life can always become beautiful and fulfilling. Although some authors do use darker thematic material, it’s usually in an educational spirit, to suggest ways in which horrors can be mitigated and life made more bearable again.

Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong

So here we have our young adult protagonists. Elena is getting a little long in the tooth for this role but the loyal fans have been following her for many years. She’s now the proud mother of two children but, on this winter’s night, she gets a telephone call which brings her to a small town called Westwood where a young man called Morgan Walsh has been locked up in jail and could do with a little help. She therefore puts down the mantle of motherdom and takes up her role of Alpha of the Pack. She and Clayton, her bodyguard, set off on an adventure with a limited number of characters and no more than 250 pages in which to reach a positive resolution. Well, this is a YA adventure with werewolves as the central characters. This could be scary, if not gory, but we start off with scenes of domestic tranquility. Having seen our central character being all maternal, this is not going to suddenly morph into a book in which she goes to Westwood and, at the first opportunity, takes hold of the throat of a human. “With her teeth sliding into the yielding flesh of her victim’s neck, she rips out a chunk of flesh. Arterial blood from his torn carotid pumps over her muzzle, whetting her appetite. With a casual surge of strength, she hoists him into the air and leans forward to breakfast on the low-hanging nuts.” No, we’re never going to get anything along those lines in a book like this.

Instead, no-one plays nice. Person or persons unknown rip the tyres of their vehicle stranding them in this hick backwater and then exciting stuff happens. At least this is what’s supposed to be exciting to one of today’s teens. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but dutifully read it to the end to see precisely what was forbidden. Was it a major Satanic ritual calling up demons that would fight our werewolves tooth and claw? Or perhaps it was handbags at dawn with the zombie cheerleaders from the local high school? Well, if you’re a fan, you’ve no doubt already added this book to your collection and know the answer. If you’re not a fan but are a young adult as defined by modern marketers, you may find Forbidden exciting. If you’re a curmudgeonly senior like me, death would be preferable to having to read another book by this author.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick

January 10, 2013 1 comment

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a very pleasing collection with one or two outstanding stories all rather beautifully bundled together by the good folk at Subterranean.

We start off with an African story, “Seven Views of Orduvai Gorge”, which poses two interesting questions. Suppose we have a race that develops intelligence and tool-handling ability. In due course, it develops the capacity to travel to the stars and builds an Empire. Later, when it has died away, a team comes to its planet of origin, Earth, to examine the historical record. What can six random snapshots of the past tell us about the history of such a race. Second, as the one with the power to interpret the evidence and inform the team of his findings, what duty does He Who Views have to pass on what he sees? Is it the role of a “historian” to filter what is communicated? Should he impose his own moral standards in deciding how much to tell those in the team? “Barnaby in Exile” is a rather thin story about a chimp that’s reared in a lab and encouraged to think and communicate by signing. When the funding for the experiment is lost, he’s sent out into the jungle, the unsympathetic humans assuming he’s somehow genetically aware how to survive in such an environment. Continuing with animals, “The Last Dog” just about avoids sentimentality as the last man befriends the last dog and then loses out to the alien that’s been going round killing everyone. As a story, it actually makes little sense. Is this alien one of these dedicated, do-it-the-hard-way types that wants to track down the last man without the benefit of his advanced technology? If it knows this is the last man, it must have a way of scanning the Earth and finding no other human alive. Why does the last man seem to know the alien? I could go on but you should understand from this that it’s not very good.

“Article of Faith” makes a serious attempt at a difficult subject. For those who believe in the practical reality of souls, it would come as a shock if it were to be suggested that robots could have one. Mike Resnick is to be commended on having the intellectual honesty to describe the outrage the evangelicals might feel, particularly if high rates of unemployment were caused by their arrival in local factories. Unfortunately, I find the result competent but unexciting. But “The Big Guy” turns that round neatly. One of the other rather clichéd robot plots is the problem of the “emotion” chip. Machines can’t be programmed to feel although they can simulate the more obvious emotions in their behaviour if this is required. This story produces a very ingenious way of looking at the phenomenon of free will and investigates how a robot might go about learning how to feel. “The Boy Who Yelled Dragon” is a rather slight fantasy story written for the YA market.

Mike Resnick with his blue mug from Atlantis

Mike Resnick with his blue mug from Atlantis

“Alistair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is the best story I’ve read so far this year. Admittedly the year is only a few days old but it’s going to take something outstanding to beat it. In tone, it reminds me of Peter Beagle as two old men set off on a final trip down memory lane before taking the fast elevator to the Pearly Gates. On the way, there’s just enough magic to make their final days less painful. “Distant Replay” is another old fogey story but it doesn’t work quite as well. There’s a sense of wonder about the set-up but the pay-off is just too pulpy to be satisfying. “The Bridge of Frankenstein” continues in this slightly sentimental sequence of stories, this time avoiding mawkishness by creatively engaging with the problems of Mrs Frankenstein as she learns to accommodate Igor and accept the monster as a marriage guidance counsellor. This has a delightfully wry sense of humour about it. And talking about humour, “The One That Got Away” explains why the howls of some coyotes are just a little bit more frustrated than you might realise.

“All the Things You Are” is a wonderful set-up but it fails to deliver because Mike Resnick does not follow the logic of the story. If we have a telepathic alien who can read everything in the target mind, it knows exactly why the hero has come to this planet. For it then to say that our hero has caught on more quickly than those who went before is absurd. His forerunners were innocent victims and might never understand what had happened. I also find it less than satisfying that our hero is not immune or less addicted. He’s gone into this situation with his eyes open. There’s no reason for him to follow the pattern. More interestingly, why does he not kill the pilot and leave himself on the planet but with a lifeline? I could go on but you should understand my frustration from these sample thoughts.

“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a rather pleasing story in which everyone tells the truth as they perceive it within their own terms of reference yet, paradoxically, the man calling himself Captain Nebula is as crazy as a loon (or not as the case may be). And, finally, “Six Blind Men and an Alien” presents us with a rather elegant version of the old story of the elephant and the sample “feels” taken by each man. One of the most difficult of all choices made by an author is the length of the finished product. This is a very clever idea and each of the “feels” is interesting. Fortunately, the author has the good sense to stop before the interest runs out. Put all this together and you have one of the better collections of the year.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr.

other-seasons_design

Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. by Neal Barrett Jr. (Subterranean Press, 2012) leads me to ask one of these silly-clever questions. When you’re publishing a collection of the best of an author’s work, the editor has a choice. Either the running order of the stories selected can be chronological so we can observe the writing styles or authorial concerns evolve, or it can group the stories by theme (all the vampire stories together — only joking). This collection groups by decade, but not in strict chronological order. What advantage is derived by the reader? Apart from putting two historical fantasies back-to-back, I see no benefit, only confused editorial thinking. Normally, this would not matter but, when the author offers up such a wide range of content, why not formally separate the SF from the crime from the alternate history? Or would this detract from the fun of unexpectedly passing from humour to seriousness, from post-apocalypse to contemporary crime, from straight SF to weird, and so on?

 

“In the Shadow of the Worm” (1964) is one of these deceptive stories about the “end of humanity” that manages to cram a short novel into 40 pages. Why might our species end? For generations, we’ve gone forward, always pushing on to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. But suppose we came to a vast ocean and were overtaken by fear of the unknown. What would happen to our “soul”? Would we only experience spiritual degeneration or might we lose the essence of what made us giants? If the latter, would we fall back down to a level more like the animal? “To Plant a Seed” (1963) plays the Hal Clement game of allowing us to watch over the shoulders of a pair of humans whose job it is to observe an alien race. Naturally, our happy couple have no idea what the lifecycle of these aliens is so, when it looks as if they are all about to commit suicide, their duty of noninterference is challenged. In terms of semiotics the story is also making the point that humans don’t interpret signs and signals in the same way of the locals. What may look like a half-empty glass to one, might be a half-full glass to the other.

Neal Barrett Jr still strong enough to hold up a building

Neal Barrett Jr still strong enough to hold up a building

 

“The Stentorii Luggage” (1960) is typical of stories from the Golden Age of the magazines. There was an honourable tradition in presenting heroes with a puzzle and then watching them solve it. In this case, a hotel acquires an infestation of chameleon-like pests. The staff then have the problem of tracking them down. This is fun. It’s a little like Keith Laumer writing the preview of The Trouble With Tribbles (1967). “A Walk on Toy” (1971) asks a very pertinent question about identity. How far should a society go to eradicate differences? Through peer socialisation, we try to create the next generation in our own image or in an image we hope will be better than ours. But what do we do with the square pegs who won’t or can’t fit into the round holes we so carefully craft? I suppose, in the days when we still had land to explore and colonise, we could send off all our misfits and become the perfectly homogenised society. But would that actually be an improvement for those left behind?

 

The Flying Stutzman” (1978) is the kind of story you used to see on The Twilight Zone in which a man finds himself on the way home but by a rather devious route. In terms of human endeavour, you should never do anything unless and until you can do it right. In “Nightbeat” (1975) we learn of a new set of responsibilities for the police when nightmares come. For the minor outbreaks, shoot drugs into the body. For the older first timer, a physical bridge may be needed to bring the patient back to awareness. “Hero” (1979) is one of these timeless stories about the frontline soldiers who survive the traumas of war and wonder what to do with themselves when they have a chance for a little R&R. While “Survival Course” (1974) reflects all the frustration we non-computer-literate people feel when we can’t quite persuade a machine to do what we want — in this case, save us from death. There can be similar problems in debating the nature of the precise nature of the afterlife with aliens as “Grandfather Pelts” (1970) so perfectly demonstrates.It reminds me of “Beyond Lies the Wub” by P K Dick.

 

“Diner” (1987) captures the desperation survivors feel post-apocalypse when their local community comes under the control of the Chinese military. The locals rub along, tolerating each other’s eccentricities. With language and cultural divides, the Chinese are less sympathetic. How will can-do, collaborator mayors cope? “Sallie C” (1986) is an rather engaging alternate history fantasy in which a young Rommel witnesses the Wright brothers first flight as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid watch from the wings, as it were. Pursuing this alternate history, “Winter on the Belle Fourche” (1989) is a wonderful story of a trapper who comes across Emily Dickinson in the wilderness, fights off a few Indians, and explains his need to carry written poetry. “Stairs” (1988) is weird, suggesting a world of high-rise living that’s broken down but not in the hard SFnal or traditional post-apocalypse sense. It has a slightly trippy, LSD-downer feel Burroughs or Ginsberg might have crafted to show the breakdown in capitalist systems. “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” (1988) was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novelette — I can’t think why unless all the men who read it thought a speeded-up fantasy might be fun to try and damn the danger. This is how post-apocalypse should be with dog-eat-dog or possum-skin-dog as the scavengers of the world unite — they have nothing to lose but their independence.

 

“Highbrow” (1987) shows that, during courtship, the man who can not only turn a girl’s head but also take her hundreds of feet in the air, stands the best chance of success. “Perpetuity Blues” (1987) is wonderful. I read it years ago when Gardner Dozois picked it up for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection and it’s as good today as it was back in 1988. Suffice it to say you should always trust the man who tells you his spacecraft disintegrated over the Great Salt Lake and he’s stuck until he can recreate the technology to get himself where he ought to be. “Tony Red Dog” (1989) is a great crime story about a Red Indian trying to make a living working for the Mafia in New York. This is not a place he can relax because no-one likes him, except the women. For some reason, they do like him until circumstances change. “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” (1990) is a one-act post-apocalypse play which is something you see as the titular bird. As a professional, you always want everything to go off exactly as you’ve planned it. The “Hit” (1992) shows the flip side when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong — even the dog thinks you’re a sex object. “Cush” (1993) is another wonderful confabulation where the Kuttner/Moore Hogben stories get religion (and not in the strict Lovecraft sense although some knowledge of Dunwich would be helpful).

 

“Under Old New York” (1991) is another post-apocalypse story, this time an economic collapse in which no-one has any real work except the chance to rebuild some of what the lost generation burned down. “Rhido Wars” (2001) is back into the more experimental, slightly weird mode as a group are forced to leave their forest where the grub is good and go out on to the plains where the sun is hot and danger lurks. While, in “Slidin’” (2008), we get to visit Dallas so we can be reminded what it was like in the Time Before. And if your world had all gone down the crapper, you’d still want news and a little light music to help you through the day. “Radio Station St. Jack” (2008) would fill the need and it will stay that way if only it can produce a miracle. “Tourists” (2004) is a kind of companion piece to “Stairs” as trippy visitors come back as passive observers and remind themselves not to remember so they can continue the trip. “Getting Dark” (2006) continues a more general preoccupation with memory and reflects on how we make life palatable for ourselves by remembering times in which we felt safe and happier. “The Heart” (2006) is one of the best pieces of straight humour I can remember reading this year. It’s not laugh-out-loud but it has such a view of human nature, of that inherent willingness to suspend disbelief otherwise known as gullibility, you just have to smile as the layers of onion are pealed away to the essential truth within. And finally “Limo” (2009) finishes us off in a magnificently macabre style.

 

No matter how you view this collection, it’s mavellously entertaining and eclectically satisfying as you turn from one genre to another, never quite knowing what’s coming next but sure it will be worth reading. Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. is terrific value for money! Thank you Subterranean Press!

 

Suitably evocative artwork from Vincent Chong.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Salvage_and_Demlolition_by_Tim_Powers-200x321

Time travel is one of the more commonly used science fiction tropes. For some reason, writers of all hues seem to believe such stories are easy to write whereas the reality is rather different. This year has seen a high point in The Coldest War and a low point in Looper. No doubt future years will contain similar extremes but, for once, it seems 2013 is going to start off with a high in the shape of Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2013). In terms of tone, I’m reminded of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which is a wonderfully melancholic story of a man dying because of a brain tumour. He becomes fascinated by an old photograph of a woman and finds romance with her in the past. The evocation of the Hotel del Coronado is delightfully detailed with the woman readily accepting this stranger as a lover because two psychics have foretold his arrival. If you have not read this book, you should. It deservedly won the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Moving to this new novella by Tim Powers, we have a dealer in rare books who receives three boxes of books and manuscripts to sell on consignment. It’s the third box that proves the trigger for travel back from modern times to the San Francisco of 1957. When he touches a manuscript and begins to read the first pages, the first disorienting harbinger comes in the form of a sudden physical and auditory illusion that he’s out of doors in the rain. He can also hear some music playing. Seconds later, he realises the walls and ceiling of the room he uses as an office are still securely in place and everything is reassuringly dry. Without spoilers, we then have various shuttle movements between the two times. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is. Unlike both Time and Again by Jack Finney and Bid Time Return which rely on a form of self-hypnosis, the force for this movement has its roots in ancient magic. But how this works is irrelevant. There are neither marvellous machines with flashing lights to impress nor ancient spells to chant in suitably declamatory style. We’re intended to focus on the people involved. Suffice it to say, there are physical and personal relationships at both ends of the time loop that entwine in a carefully choreographed way. Indeed, the particular magic of this plot is how meticulously the detail is introduced and then dovetails together as we watch the key players in their respective times.

Then there are some enticing questions to ponder. For example, when in 1957, why should our traveller give his name as Vader (aka Darth) and explain his “profession” as dealing in salvage and demolition, when he’s actually Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer? In a contemporary setting, there can be innumerable reasons for concealing identity, but when our hero goes into the past. . . And then we have the following lines in the opening verses of the manuscript he reads,

To Express
His own will, print himself on this world!
He chose — and bit — and dimmed each future dawn.

Does this suggest our hero can manipulate the world in some way but, if he does so, that the outcomes will be bad? Obviously dimming the future dawns leaves everything in darkness. If taken literally that would be a disconcerting outcome. It might make Matheson and Finney’s movement by self-hypnosis sound rather safer. Then there are the following lines,

Two Streams: one flowing South, the other North,
As if from mirror’d Springs they issu’d forth. . .

Perhaps these words are somehow a metaphorical reference to the publishing practices of Ace Books. The series termed Ace Doubles sold two novels in tête-bêche format, i.e. bound so that each novel is presented head-to-tail and vice versa. Or it suggests everything should be in pairs as in the original and its reflected image. This could, of course, mean there must be a return for every going through time, or it could mean there should always be an even, not an odd, number of journeys to preserve symmetry and balance. Such uncertainties are a source of real delight.

As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautifully produced book and it’s delivering what looks to be one of the novellas to beat in the 2013 race to the awards. More importantly, Tim Powers has written another of his genre-defying stories. Salvage and Demolition is for everyone who enjoys science fiction mixed into fantasy with real world historical figures dotted across the fictional landscape in a not quite alternate history. No matter how you try to classify it by genre, it’s tremendous fun!

The dust jacket and impressive interior illustrations are by J. K. Potter.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

%d bloggers like this: