Foreigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Review by Martin Wisse
Foreigner is the first novel in one of CJ Cherryh’s popular series, yet until now I had never read any of them. She is such a prolific writer that it’s easy to miss a series or two. She also has such a wide range, writing anything from fantasy to space opera, that not everything she writes appeals to every one of her fans. The number of people I’ve known who hated her breakthrough novel Downbelow Station for example…
Yet, once you’ve read a few of her novels, you discover that there is one narrative trick all her stories have in common, no matter what the setting or the plot is. What she likes to do is to take her protagonists out of their comfort zone, get them at their most vulnerable and then put the pressure on. Every one of her novels I’ve read has the same structure. The protagonist is a young man (rarely a young woman) put in a position of responsibility but without power. Usually he’s an outsider in an alien culture, cut off from his own people, in the middle of some sort of political crisis he barely understands let alone can influence. She then let’s this crisis heats up, makes sure her hero gets little to eat and less sleep and is as far removed from the centre of the crisis as possible, yet still has a vital role to play in resolving it, even if he not necessarily knows it. To make sure the reader is as much in the dark as the hero, she usually makes sure they’re only looking at the story through his eyes.
In Foreigner‘s case the eyes we’re looking through are Bren Cameron’s. Bren is the paidhi, the human interpretor appointed by treaty to the court of the aiji of the Western Association. The paidhi is the person the most responsible for keeping the peace between human and atevi ever since the war two hundred years earlier. It been an accident that had put humans on the atevi’s planet and many of the latter were still not happy about it, but at least they were now confined to only one island and forced to share their technological and scientific knowledge. It’s this that is the humans’ greatest advantage and it’s Bren’s job to share them in the most advantageous way possible, striking a balance between being useful to the atevi, not forcing their technological development too soon and keeping at least some bargaining chips off the table for as long as possible.
Not an easy job, but things get worse for Bren quick. His story starts with an assassin in his room and Bren driving him off with an illegal gun. In response Tabini-aiji order’s Bren’s bodyguards to bring him to his grandmother’s castle – the one who twice tried to be aiji instead of her son and grandson and who might have been involved in the tragic death of her own son, but who in any case doesn’t like humans very much.
Alone, isolated and confused, cut off from the modern world in a castle that was old when humans first went into space and only barely upgraded to include modern amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity, Bren is not happy. His existential dilemma is that his instinct is to trust and like those atevi like Jago and Banichi, his two bodyguards, he has known and worked with for years, yet these are human emotions not mirrored by the atevi. Their language can only think about “like” in the sense that you can like a breakfast fruit, but does have fourteen different words for betrayal. Instead atevi are ruled by man’chi, the sense of duty and obligation owned to an association or leader, which can get very complicated indeed. It’s the conflict between Bren’s instincts and feelings and his imperfect understanding of man’chi that drives most of the stress he’s under. Literally kept in the dark at times, he has no idea what’s going on, what his own role in it is or how to get out from the hole he is in.
Foreigner is one of those Cherryh novels that was difficult to read for me, because I could see the pain that was coming for Bren all the time and was wincing in advance. I’d figured out Cherryh’s trick it took me some effort to get back to the story. I also had some problems with the setting. The atevi with their sense of man’chi and lack of emotions and complex web of aristocratic power relations come across as “space Japanese”, with the human settlement standing in for the Dutch at Dejima during the Shogunate. It took some time for me to get over this.
What I also had problems with was the central conceit in the story, that it would be possible to trade scientific and technological information for two hundred years without the atevi catching up and surpassing humans. Cherryh does play some lip service to the idea that the atevi do innovate on their own as well, but it does seem humans are the main driver of scientific progress, which I just don’t buy. Science doesn’t work that way, you cannot just keep parcelling out little nuggets of information like that without sparking off a scientific revolution. Especially on a planet with a few million humans and a billion or more atevi.
Setting aside those objections, once I did immerse myself in the story, it was just as gripping as any other Cherryh one. This isn’t her best novel perhaps, but like most Cherryh novels it’s still very much worth reading.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
The Time Traders, Andre Norton (1958)
Review by Martin Wisse
If it wasn’t for Project Gutenberg I might’ve never read this novel. Though Andre Norton was one of the most prolific US science fiction writers, mostly writing what we’d now call young adult novels, she was never translated into Dutch much so was missing when I went through my personal Golden Age. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to catch up with her, in no small part thanks to Gutenberg’s collection of her works. Because until roughly the seventies, American copyright was only valid for a limited time and had to be explicitly renewed, a lot of science fiction pulp and early paperback stories entered the public domain. In this case, the copyright on the original 1958 hardcover publication of The Time Traders was never renewed, making it fair game for Gutenberg.
I picked this out of the available Nortons for two reasons: it was the first book in a series and more importantly, it was a time travel story. It had been a while since I’d last read a good, old fashioned time travel story and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After all, it has time agents who have to travel undercover through prehistoric times to find the ancient civilisation from which the Soviets are getting sophisticated weaponry and technology they couldn’t have possibly produced themselves.
But that does point to the novel’s greatest problem: it was written in 1958, at the height of the first Cold War and it shows. It’s not just that this is a straight arms race between heroic, American time travellers and devious Soviet agents, it’s also that the protagonist, Ross Murdock, is an example of that other fifties bugbear, a juvenile delinquent, mollycoddled by society. He thinks he knows how the game is played until he finds himself being drafted in a top secret project, which we, even if the title hadn’t been a dead giveaway, know soon enough is a time travel project, but which costs him some time to find out. Though gifted with a bit of cunning and some inner strength, Ross at first is not the brightest bulb.
The Time Traders starts with Ross being drafted into the project, blind, as alternative to being sent to prison for unspecified crimes. He at first thinks to play along to bide his time until he has an opportunity to escape the polar base he’s sent to, but when his chance at escape would mean betraying the base to the Soviets, he can’t do it. This finally earns him some measure of trust as the goal of the time travel project is explained to him and he begins his training in earnest.
This second part of the book is dominated by I guess you can call it a love story, between Ross and his mentor, an older time agent called Gordon Ashe. Gordon is the father figure Ross never had and he does his utmost to win his respect. This comes to a head as they go on their first time travel journey together, back to Iron Age Britain, where the agents have established themselves as foreign traders and established a small base. Of course things go wrong and of course it turns to Ross to save the day.
If I’m honest, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ross and Gordon’s adventures in prehistory, rather than it all devolving in spy games with Russian time agents. Though much of what Norton shows of Iron Age Britain may be obsolete or have always been nonsense, she does have a good eye for the small, telling detail to make a world come alive and I would’ve liked to spent more time there. The plot itself is of course dated, especially because it is supposed to be set sometime in the near future, but after a while it didn’t bother me. If it would you, there’s an updated version brought out by Baen Books, if I’m not mistaken, which has updated the Cold War plots. I’m not sure that was needed.
The Time Traders was popular enough to spawn three sequels, two of which (but not the second) are also available at Gutenberg, as well as three much later continuations by Norton plus a junior writer. Again, not having read them, I’d be wary to try these latter. Famous writers revisiting popular series with the help of less famous writers never work out.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
At the end of Chanur’s Venture, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, The Pride of Chanur, had found themselves heading for Mkks, a station in the disputed zone between the kif and mahendo’sat, chasing after a kif leader who had kidnapped Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy and the human Tully. These events were precipitated by the return of humans to Compact Space, which in turn led to a bid for power between two kif leaders… And it’s one of these whom Pyanfar finds herself reluctantly allied to – the very same one, in fact, called Sikkukkut, who kidnapped Hilfy and Tully.
So The Pride of Chanur, Sikkukkut’s small fleet, the mahendo’sat hunter Jik, and even the hani ship Vigilance form an impromptu task force and descend on the kif station Kekf and seize control of it, cutting off Sikkukkut’s rival and causing him to badly lose face. (Kif politics operates on individuals’ clout, or sifk, and leaders can rise and fall in moments.) Somehow the enigmatic knnn are involved in all this, and the bird-like shsto have been making secret treaties with some of the hani in order to cut the mahendo’sat out of any future trade deals, and the House of Chanur back home is near-bankrupt and wanted for a number of violations of laws and treaties – which is why Vigilance is dogging The Pride of Chanur…
The Kif Strike Back reads like the middle book of a trilogy, which in effect it is. The first book of the quintet, The Pride of Chanur, felt like a one-off, and the second book, Chanur’s Venture, took the ending of the first book and ran with it. The fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, takes place many years later. And like many middle books of trilogies, The Kif Strike Back seems to consist chiefly of getting the various players into place for the final showdown, which, I’m guessing, will take place at Meetpoint, where the quintet opened. There is also a great deal of explaining, by Pyanfar, of what is going on behind the scenes and the motivations of the various factions – all, that is, except for the methane-breathers, as no one ever really knows what they’re thinking. To make matters worse, Tully confesses that the human ships may have actually fired on knnn ships. And no one messes with the knnn. They are centuries ahead of everyone else technologically, and don’t appear to deal very well with other races.
But if The Kif Strike Back isn’t quite as engaging a read as Chanur’s Venture, there is still much to like in it. Cherryh reveals more about the kif, and they’re a lot more interesting than they had appeared in the earlier books. Pyanfar makes an excellent protagonist, although perhaps she’s praised a tad too much by other characters (leading the reader to suspect the rest of the hani are not much good at anything). There is also a pleasingly slightly old-fashioned feel to the universe of the series. The pidgin spoken by the mahendo’sat is perhaps less pleasing, and it’s unlikely any writer would do such a thing in a twenty-first century novel. But the technology of Compact Space, with its huge space stations, FTL drives but no artificial gravity, the clunky tech of 1970s visions of the future… It’s all a bit retro. And there’s an implausible level of commonality in the technology across the various races – which also feels somewhat retro. While the various races’ spaceships may look different, they all seem to operate exactly the same – although it’s hard to tell how much so, given that Cherryh is characteristically parsimonious with detail. Her prose has always been about the characters and their actions and thoughts, and she rarely spends more than the minimum number of words on setting.
The Kif Strike Back is followed by Chanur’s Homecoming and Chanur’s Legacy. This series is solid hard-ish space opera, perhaps a little past its sell-by date – but when did that ever stop a science fiction reader? The Compact Space quintet doesn’t pretend to offer relevance to a twenty-first century reader; it didn’t to a reader back in the 1980s. And back then, I suspect, it felt a little like one of those wind-up toys from an earlier generation, a bit clunky, no smoothly rounded corners or brightly-coloured moulded plastic… but it did something interesting and fun. And sometimes that’s all you want from a book.
The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1964)
Review by admiral ironbombs
Leigh Brackett was the queen of pulp SF. She started writing adventure stories in 1940, but her first novel in 1944 was a mystery, No Good from a Corpse. As legend has it, Howard Hawks was so impressed by it that he asked for “this guy Brackett” to write a screenplay of The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. Today Brackett is more famous for her screenwriting career working with Hawks – most of them westerns or noir, old John Wayne flicks like Rio Bravo and Hatari!, but also the first pass of The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas, the only time she worked on a SF film. Those screenplays diverted her focus from science fiction, though she did return in the early 1970s to write the Skaith novels before succumbing to cancer at the age of sixty.
The Secret of Sinharat is a novel expanded from one of her 1940s novellas, 1949’s ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ for the Planet Stories pulp. Everything points to her husband, fellow SF writer Ed “World Wrecker” Hamilton, as the source of the revisions, especially since Brackett was busy writing screenplays at the time. There’s enough differences to make The Secret of Sinharat and ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ their own distinct works, but the core of the novella is alive and well in the short novel.
Eric John Stark finds himself trapped on the Martian desert, his mount dying of thirst, men of the Earth Police Control hot on his heels. Led by Stark’s foster-father, Ashton Simon, the police are on to Stark’s purpose on Mars: they know he was hired by a revolutionary to train an army of drylander barbarians and low-canallers, they’re aware of the coming revolt against the Martian city-states that will cause rivers of blood to flow in the streets. But since they cannot intervene in Martian affairs, they need Stark to become a double-agent and shut this revolt down, and Stark finds himself working to diffuse the very revolution he was hired to instigate.
Playing the game of bluff and double-bluff will be easy for Stark. Finding one of his fellow mercenaries is an old adversary, Luhar the Venusian, is only a passing concern. Nor are the grudges of the rebel lieutenants, one of which has an addiction to radioactive rays that bring out mindless, primal savagery. No, the trouble comes from the revolutionary leader, who claims he’s found the secrets of the lost Ramas of Mars – long-dead immortals thought close to godhood, with incredible powers like the ability to transfer minds between bodies. Because there are long-dead secrets on this planet many would kill for, and legend of the Ramas’ extinction may be greatly exaggerated…
Brackett’s prose is unmistakable; it’s full of vigor and wonder, and it’s no surprise she influenced dozens of authors (such as Michael Moorcock, who wrote a glowing introduction). She transmutes the California of 1940s literature into the red planet Mars – the seedy underbelly of the Martian city-states could be the San Francisco streets trafficked by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; her unforgiving Martian desert is the same type of rugged frontier she brought to life in Howard Hawks’ westerns. The twists, the thrills, the adventure are all here. Regardless of the flaws of the planetary romance sub-genre – of which they are many – it makes for excellent entertainment. Really, there is no finer practitioner of SF adventure than Brackett: her tales echo Burroughs’ Mars, but have a uniqueness all their own.
The Secret of Sinharat is a good example of why Brackett’s fiction surpasses much of the pulp adventure of her time: elements of revolution and postcolonialism add extra depth to this story. The Martian revolt centers on the groups living in the shadow of the ruling city-states, drawing immediate comparison to the African states gaining independence in the early 1960s; the underground revolt is trained by grim mercenaries and led by a die-hard idealist reminiscent of Castro or Che. These themes would have been relevant and topical when novelized in 1962, but they were part of the story back when it was a 1949 novella. Brackett’s women are femmes fatale – sexy, dark, and dangerous, not simpering clichés in constant need of rescue. Stark is an anti-hero, and I can’t recall many anti-heroes before the 1970s… Yet you can picture him in some alternate universe played by Humphrey Bogart, grinding out a cigarette stub in the sands of some dead Martian sea.
The Secret of Sinharat succeeds because of Brackett’s compelling prose and rich atmosphere. I could argue that The Sword of Rhiannon is her best sword-and-planet work, but I can’t really fault The Secret of Sinharat; it’s a solid adventure yarn made better by its depth. Characterization and plotting is still pulpy – that is to say, thin and straightforward, respectively – and Brackett’s tales are dated, an acquired taste at best. But if you’re in the market for adventure, Brackett is among the best practitioners of that art. Moorcock makes a persuasive argument in his introduction that Brackett raised the bar for space opera, and I’m inclined to agree with him. An enjoyable old-school romp.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.
The Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett (1973)
Review by Martin Wisse
The Halfling and Other Stories is the sixth book I’ve read in the Year of Reading Women challenge I set myself after I’d noticed last year how few female written science fiction books I read. I had chosen this because it was something I hadn’t read before and I always liked Brackett. Unfortunately it turned out this was one of her lesser collections. The stories don’t fit well together, there’s no real theme to the collection and some are decidedly on the weak side.
It doesn’t help that the first two stories are basically the same. In both there’s the hard-bitten protagonist falling for a mysterious beautiful alien girl who he knows is trouble yet can’t help himself but get involved with, who then turns out to be evil. Worse, in both stories this girl is shown to be representative of her race, their evil part of their biology. It’s a bit… uncomfortable… shall we say, but unfortunately these sort of assumptions are build into the kind of planetary romances Leigh Brackett wrote.
As a genre planetary romance has always been a bit dodgy, an evolutionary offshoot of the Africa adventure story, with a lot of the same racist and colonial assumptions built in. So you have cringing Gandymedian natives, mysterious jungles and alien drums, crazed halfbreeds and all those other tropes recycled from Tarzan. Just because the native races are now Martian or Venusian and coloured green or red instead of black or yellow doesn’t make the assumptions behind them any less racist. There’s still the idea that the various alien races encountered have existential qualities that each and every member of such a race shares. Leigh Brackett is usually better than this, with those tropes present in her stories but never this blatant as in these first two stories. Her writing style and sense of atmosphere are still present, but the execution is pedestrian, unlike the Eric John Stark story also present.
It isn’t all planetary romance in this collection. In fact most of the stories here are rather classic sf puzzle stories, something I don’t really associate with Brackett. These stories are okay, but nothing special. The same goes for the whole collection. There aren’t any bad stories in here, but apart from ‘Enchantress of Venus’, the lone Stark story, there’s nothing really outstanding here either. Something for the completists.
‘The Halfling’ (1943). A beautiful alien dancer joins John Greene’s circus. And then the murders start…
‘The Dancing Girl of Ganymede’ (1950). A Terran adventurer down on his luck rescues a strange dancing girl from her would be assassins; his native helper does not like this. Only when he meets her brothers does he realises what a mistake he made…
‘The Citadel of Lost Ages’ (1950). A twentieth-century New Yorker is resurrected in the far future, once the Earth has stopped revolving around its axis and the mutated people from the nightside reign over the Earth…
‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ (1957). One of the better stories in the collection, this tale of two funny-coloured alien visitors lost in an unreconstructed Southern town is not very subtle, but it is interesting to see a science fiction story of this vintage openly treating racism.
‘The Shadows’ (1952). A small expedition lands on a newly discovered planet and finds the ruins of the once dominant intelligent species that lived there, but who killed them? And what does their disappearance have to do with the strange shadows that start to hang around the expedition?
‘Enchantress of Venus’ (1949). An Eric John Stark story and the best in the anthology, as Stark comes to a half legendary city on the edge of the Venusian ocean in search of revenge. Leigh Brackett’ s pulpish stylings are always at their best when she’s doing a Stark story and this holds up with the best of them.
‘The Lake of the Gone Forever’ (1949). His father came back half mad from the planet Iskar, now Rand Conway is back to see the terrible secret his father left behind – and get rich exploiting it.
‘The Truants’ (1950). When Hugh Sherwin’s daughter and other children start skipping school to play with the “angels” and their “spaceship” in the forest on Sherwin’s land, he’s determined to get to the bottom of this. What he finds surprises him, though perhaps not the reader.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Martin Wisse
Chronologically Shards of Honor the earliest story in the Vorkosigan series, with the exception of Falling Free. It is also the earliest published novel in the series and was based on an idea Bujold had for a Star Trek story. In the original story, the roles of Aral and Cordelia would’ve been played by a Klingon warrior and a Vulcan scientist; you can still sort of see the traces of this in the published book.
Cordelia Naismith is the captain of a Betan Planetary Survey Mission investigating a newly discovered planet, when her expedition is attacked by a Barrayaran force. She’s stunned and when she comes to she’s alone with the leader of that force, Aral Vorkosigan, left behind for death by his own internal enemies. They negotiate an uneasy truce to try and survive on a hostile planet to reach a survival cache left behind by the Barrayarans. After a long and ardous trek they reach the cache, but something unexpected has happened in the meantime: they’ve fallen in love.
Their problems are only starting at that point, as Aral has to deal with the mutiny amongst his crew, which is led by his political officer, while Cordelia has to make sure the rescue attempt by her own ship’s crew actually succeeds, without handing over Aral to the mutineers again. Cordelia manages to solve both problems at once, both knocking the renewed mutiny on its head and escaping with all her people from Aral’s ship, the first of Bujold’s Competent Women.
Cordelia gets away, Aral gets his ship back and both think they will never see each other again. Two months later Cordelia finds herself commanding a slow freighter on a supply run to Escobar – an ally of Beta Colony – which has been invaded by the Barrayarans, from the very system Cordelia had been exploring. Her ship is a decoy, meant to draw the Barrayaran guards away from the wormhole and the real supply ships. Unfortunately, Cordelia and her crew get captured in the process, which should not have been too bad, POW treaties existing in the future too, had she not fallen into the hands of the psychopath commander of the invasion fleet, Admiral Vorrutyer, right-hand to Prince Serg. Vorruyter’s plan is to torture her by letting one of his soldiers rape her, something he has forced this particular soldier to do regularly. Things do not quite go according to plan as the would be rapist is Sergeant Bothari, Aral Vorkosigan’s old batman, who instead kills Vorruyter and helps Cordelia escape to Aral.
From this point on the Escobar invasion goes from bad to worse for the Barrayarans, as during the invasion of the planet the flagship is hit and destroyed, killing Prince Serg and the rest of the command staff, save for Aral, who was charged with planning for a possible withdrawal in case things went wrong. It’s only after Aral puts into motion the withdrawal once he has gained command that Cordelia understands that the invasion had always been meant to fail, in order to discredit Barrayar’s militarists and assassinate Prince Serg, in a plan cooked up by Aral and his emperor, to put all the bad eggs in one basket and then drop the basket…
The end of their second meeting once again finds Cordelia and Aral going their separate ways, Aral back to Barrayar to resign his commission, Cordelia back home to a hero’s welcome she feels undeserved. The details of Barrayaran treatment of prisoners, especially female prisoners has become public knowledge and Cordelia has become a symbol of resistance for having killed one Barrayaran monster, Vorruyter, and having been in the power of another, Vorkosigan. She can’t convince anybody, not even her own family of the real truth, nor is able to expose the secrets behind the failed invasion as that would lead to civil war on Barrayar. In the end, her unwillingness to play the role of hero expected of her makes her suspect and she has to flee Beta Colony to avoid being put into psychiatric care. She of course goes to Barrayar and Aral, gets him out of his funk and marries him, but with the death of the old emperor they now have to accept their biggest challenge: take on the regency for the emperor’s grandson and Prince Serg’s son, Gregor, only five years old.
Shards of Honor, as its title indicates revolves around honour: both Aral’s more straightforward notion of his duty to country and emperor and Cordelia’s personal honour. Time and again she could have withdrawn from Barrayar’s and Aral’s internal problems and just done her duty to her own country, yet she choose the harder road each time. Honour will be a dominant theme throughout the Vorkosigan series, together with family, here slightly less prominent. Yet there are hints of how important Bujold finds family here already, in Aral and Cordelia’s loyalty to sergeant Bothari, which goes beyond what they own him for him saving Cordelia from torture, but also with Lieutenant Koudelka, wounded during the Escobar invasion and threatened with retirement on a world not kind to anybody with a physical disability, genetic or otherwise, who Aral takes on as his personal secretary. For Bujold family is important and naturally extends not just to people you share blood with, but those that are bound to you through other ties. Bothari and Koudelka have made sacrifices for Aral and Cordelia and those make them not just friends, but part of their family.
One other theme also has a presence here, but would be more important in later books: the influence of galactic technology on Barrayar. As said, the Barrayarans, not just the sadists like Prince Serg or Vorruyter had been raping female prisoners of war. At the end of the book they get the bill in the form of seventeen uterine replicators containing the offspring of Barrayaran rapes, saddling them with their care rather than their victim mothers. This sort of thing is why I call Lois McMaster Bujold a hard science fiction writer, because she thinks about the impact MagicTech would have on real life, rather than use it solely as props in an adventure story.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
Although she started out as a science fiction writer, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is probably best known these days for vampire novels – the fourteenth book in her Count of Saint- Germain series was published in 2014, but she has written several other series featuring vampires. But back in the 1970s, she was a science fiction writer – she even appears in both Women of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder – although it seems most of her short fiction sales were to anthologies rather than magazines. Cautionary Tales is her first collection, and contains material from 1971 to 1978. Each story is followed by a half-page author’s note. Interestingly, the collection features an introduction by James Tiptree Jr, and this is followed by ‘A word of Caution’ by Yarbro herself, in which she writes, “I am very much indebted to James Tiptree, Jr., for her kind and thoughtful words”. ‘A Note of Caution’ is dated August 1977, indicating that by summer 1977 Tiptree’s true identity was known.
‘Everything that Begins with an “M”‘ (1972). To be honest, I’m not even sure if this story is genre. It is set in a small village some time during the Middle Ages. A mad man lives in a “sand pit” (I’d have thought a midden heap more likely), and events lead the villagers to venerate him as a prophet after a tax collector accidentally chokes to death in the local inn. But when the authorities descend on the village, the mad man is blamed.
‘Frog Pond’ (1971). Stories such as this could almost be a subgenre of their own. Although ‘Frog Pond’ initially seems a fairly standard post-apocalypse story, albeit somewhat more optimistic than most, it also has a very Tom-Sawyer-esque vibe to it, with a final twist which shows that country folk aren’t the same as city folk (although it’s very much a science-fictional twist).
‘Un Bel Di’ (1973). This is a surprisingly nasty story, and told entirely from an alien point of view. An undersecretary is banished to a provincial world after being caught abusing the children of a fellow member of the government. The natives of the world are innocent and seem to resemble the children of the undersecretary’s race. So he arranges for one to be gifted to him as a “companion” – the natives alter themselves according to the role they play, and the companion will be bonded for life to the undersecretary. But, he is cruel and evil, and is only waiting to be told his exile has been rescinded. He has no intention of taking the companion with him.
‘Lammas Night’ (1976). Not every story in Cautionary Tales is science fiction, or even fantasy. ‘Lammas Night’ was written for a “magic-and-mystery” anthology and contains no genre elements. Its protagonist is Count Cagliostro, an infamous eighteenth-century occult hoaxster. In the story, he has promised a group of aristocratic rakes that he will raise a demon, but, of course, he can’t. So he offers a deal to the wife of one of the rakes – if she will play the part of the demon in his faked-up summoning, she will have her revenge on her husband.
‘Into My Own’ (1975). A renowned playwright is only a few short years away from dying. He’s already had an artificial heart fitted, and now his liver failing. He’s been offered a replacement, but he has also been offered “transfer”, in which a copy of his personality is constructed in a specially-designed computer. The computer will then go on writing plays as if it were the playwright. However, this is not the mind upload familiar from cyberpunk. The computer is programmed with as many facts about its subject as possible, and for the final stage of the process it interviews the man and uses sensors to determine the emotional import of his responses. Essentially, the story is bickering between the playwright and his computer simulacrum. The process of transfer is not especially plausible, and though Yarbo makes a nod toward a justification with a mention of “Live Performance Laws”, but the choice of a playwright for this honour feels weirdly old-fashioned.
‘Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair’ (1978). This story is original to the anthology, and the following author’s note draws parallels between it and Yarbro’s first Saint-German novel, Hôtel Transylvania, “which develops along similar lines”. The story is about Dierdre, a young female ghoul, who escapes form her grave and goes on the hunt for flesh to eat. She brutally murders a night watchman, and then a young woman – albeit chiefly to provide a body for her own empty grave – before getting a job at a morgue, where she can snack to her heart’s content on cadavers.
‘The Meaning of the Word’ (1973). A member of an exploration team stumbles across an alien room, buried beneath a sea of ash. He’s an archaeologist, and some members of the team can’t see the point of his presence. The alien room contains a wall of alien writing, and some sort of learning tool, which the archaeologist uses to teach himself the language. However, breaching the room has given him a fatal dose of radiation. He chooses to remain behind so he can complete his translation.
‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ (1978). In the somewhat clichéd South American country of Liberación, the female electronics engineer who created Generalissimo Sandón’s Butterfly has fallen from favour and now lives in poverty. The Butterfly is free-flying listening device, a drone disguised as the insect it is named for, and Sandón apparently has hundreds of these which he uses to keep a watchful eye, and ears, on his nation’s population. Except it is all a fake. The Butterfly exists, but has a range of only three kilometres. The butterflies which fly about the city are real ones. Sandón relies on bugs, agents and secret police to maintain his rule.
‘Allies’ (1977). Every character named in this story has a gender-neutral name, and though there are references to men and women, the sexes of the characters is left unrevealed. On an uninhabited world, a station of staffers guard a marsh for the Rare Resources Bureau. The story does not explain what the rare resource is, who else might want the resource, or indeed why a station of people is a cost-effective or efficient way to ensure one particular area on a planet remains undeveloped. (In the real world, a legal document is enough.) Staffers begin dying mysteriously, and Tuttle is convinced there is something invisible and inimical in the marsh. The station doctor, however, suspects suicide, since the RRB has begun firing its staffers six months before they were due to retire in order to avoid paying them pensions, but their families will receive double the pension as a death-benefit. (Something IBM is apparently doing right now in the real world. Multinational corporations really are scum.) ‘Allies’ never quite commits to its central premise, but the gender-neutral cast makes for an interesting read.
‘Dead in Irons’ (1976). Although original to the anthology Faster than Light (1976), this story also appeared in The New Women of Wonder. A new steward joins the crew of an interstellar starship as a steward. Because she refuses to accept the sexual advances of the head steward, she is giving the worst job: looking after the frozen steerage passengers. Her cold suit is even sabotaged by the head steward’s ex-lover, which makes the job harder. Although this story has all the trappings of heartland science fiction, it harkens back to the slave ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ships which carried transportees to Australia. It’s something I never find wholly convincing, perhaps because it leaves a nasty taste and I’ve yet to be persuaded technology would not provide solutions to the problems the story builds into its universe.
‘Swan Song’ (1978). A wealthy industrialist has invited a Finnish engineer to his hunting lodge in northern Canada to offer him a job. But the Finn is a pacifist and the industrial’s corporation is heavily involved in arms manufacture. Initially swayed by the promise of heading up the corporation’s space sciences division, the Finn decides to stick to his principles after the lake beside the lodge reminds him of the myth of the Lake of Tuonela, and the Black Swan which guards the dead from the Hiiet, or Finnish demonic forces of destruction. This is a thin piece, but the atmosphere is handled well.
‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1976). A journalist for a US magazine interviews a disabled beggar about the part he played in a great director’s film (obviously, from the title, it’s Frederico Fellini, although his name does not appear in the actual narrative). The beggar, who has a beautiful singing voice and loves opera, was badly beaten in the movie. The journalist asks what he was paid to accept the role, and the beggar tells him that he was given the manuscript to Turandot, Puccini’s last unfinished opera. It’s the actual manuscript pages by Puccini, giving the ending he had planned and not the one that was later added by another composer. Other than an off-hand reference to the “wreckage of the Vatican”, there’s no real genre content to the story, and while it works well enough on its own, familiarity with Puccini and Turandot would no doubt be an advantage.
The collection ends with a poem, ‘An Indulgence’, which seems aptly titled.
Cautionary Tales is a varied collection in terms of content, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high. Yarbro’s prose is more prone to poetic turns pf phrase than is common in 1970s science fiction, which seemed to think a bland unadorned style the best way to write. I particularly liked the line in ‘Allies': “They sat apart from each other, like slow private snails on different leaves of a plant” (p 129). Several of the stories were inspired by operas – ‘Un Bel Di’, for example, is loosely based upon Madame Butterfly – which is hardly surprising given that Yarbro is also a composer. But there is also a darkness to most of the stories in this collection, a quite callous view of people, from the RRB of ‘Allies’ to Sandón in ‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ to the stewards in ‘Dead in Irons’. Not mention the paedophile alien in ‘Un Bel Di’. As a result, ‘Disturb No My Slumbering Fair’ actually reads like a light-hearted romp by comparison, despite being about a flesh-eating ghoul. It is also worth mentioning that many of Yarbro’s stories feature female characters either as protagonists, or certainly possessing agency – indeed, hiding the genders of the cast in ‘Allies’ renders any complaints against the presence of female protagonists in science fiction ridiculous. Although of their time, there’s a singular vision in evidence in many of the stories in Cautionary Tales, and it’s a shame Yarbro didn’t see fit to continue writing science fiction.