Change the Sky and Other Stories, Margaret St Clair

changetheskyChange the Sky and Other Stories, Margaret St Clair (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

Name a male science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s not a difficult task: most of the big names were writing then – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, EE Doc Smith… Not to mention a host of others. Now name a female science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s much harder. Le Guin wasn’t published until the 1960s. There was Andre Norton, who was first published in the 1940s. Likewise for Leigh Brackett. And Joanna Russ, whose first story saw print in 1959. But what about a woman described as a “renowned author” with “a long and distinguished career in the science fiction field”? Renowned authors do not, as a general rule, get written out of genre history, but these days Margaret St Clair is virtually forgotten. None of her novels are acknowledged as “classics”, though some might know of her 1963 novel, Sign of the Labrys. She was neither nominated for, nor won, any awards. And it took over a decade for some of her stories from the 1950s to be collected.

Change the Sky and Other Stories contains eighteen stories originally published between 1951 and 1961. They appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy Magazine, Startling Stories, Future and The Science Fiction Quarterly – all major sf magazine titles. According to isfdb.com, she was hugely prolific – I count nearly 80 stories published during the 1950s alone. It seems astonishing that an author with that level of output, published in major magazines, should pretty much disappear from the history of the genre. Judging from the stories collected in Change the Sky, her obscurity is not due to the quality of her fiction. While few stand out especially, they are no better and no worse than what was published at the time – and, in some cases, are a good deal more interesting than was typical for the period.

The title story, ‘Change the Sky’ (1955), shows a frequent 1950s sf penchant for unsupported premises. A man who is told he can no longer travel between planets approaches an artist and asks him to build him his perfect virtual world. He will see out the rest of his days in it. Though the concept of virtual worlds is surprisingly prescient – here they appear to operate more by magical technology than computer science – the end of the story is somewhat predictable and banal.

‘Beaulieu’ (1957) is an old story, recast in the colours of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse or Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief. A woman picks up a man in her green sports car and offers to take him to the eponymous place. It’s a fantasy locale of his, and St Clair drops a few leaden hints than the woman is a Valkyrie; but the atmosphere of the story is more interesting than its plot.

‘Marriage Manual’ (1954), on the other hand, is a piece of 1950s sf silliness. It’s not about a “marriage manual” of course; it’s about a sex manual. In this case, the manual belongs to the alien dorff, who apparently love to boast of their “erotic possibilities”. Somehow, their means of sex requires an energy source that human beings want in order to power their worlds. But the dorff won’t give up a copy of their marriage manual. At least, they won’t until Bill disappears, and George discovers he has undergone a transformation into a female dorff…

Surprisingly, ‘Age of Prophecy’ (1951) is quite a nasty piece. In a post-apocalyptic California, various prophets have formed religious groups, which operate like small independent states. Unlike the other prophets, however, Benjamin has real powers. He is manipulated by Torbit into founding his own religious group, and later into attacking a redoubt of hated scientists in Pasadena. But the attack goes wrong, and Benjamin learns who his true friends are. There’s a level of biting cynicism and anti-religious feeling to this story that is surprising given the time it was written.

‘Then Fly Our Greetings’ (1951) is another post-apocalypse story, but in this story a device which causes humans to hate the presence of others is co-opted by the military and used… but backfires. Global society crashes, but something new eventually forms in its place. It’s not an especially convincing premise, and made worse by the attempts to explain it.

The most recent collected story in the book is ‘An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas’ (1961). A reverend begins a campaign to return to the old non-commercialised Christmases of yore, without all the neon lights and fancy illuminations. This draws the ire of PE&G, and their secret masters “on the far side of 3,000 A.D.”, so they send one of their agents to neutralise the reverend. But she falls in love with him, and the two of them end up battling the magic of PE&G for survival. A bizarre mix of sf and fantasy, it first appeared, unsurprisingly, in the December issue of Galaxy Magazine. It was later republished in 1994 in an anthology of Christmas genre stories edited by David G Hartwell, Christmas Magic.

One of the more unsettling stories in Change the Sky is ‘Stawdust’ (1956), and it’s unsettling because it makes little real sense. Aboard a starship – which is pretty much in all respects like an ocean liner – passengers and members of the crew have been transforming into stuffed dummies. Miss Abernathy is clearly responsible for it, but she does not how she is doing it or why. And neither does the reader. These days we’d likely describe ‘Stawdust’ as a mood-piece.

‘Thirsty God’ (1953) is a typical 1950s sf “little tailor” story. A human on Venus hides from some angry “plunp” in a shrine, knowing they will not violate it. But the god within the shrine is real, and the human is changed by the encounter.

There are many stories in science fiction like ‘The Altruists’ (1953). The “slurb” are so eager to please that their world is a paradise for human visitors. But one human has an entirely different experience and discovers the cause of their altruism. His paradise becomes a prison.

‘Shore Leave’ (1974) is another piece of sf silliness. A ship lands on a planet and its alien crew rush out to experience sex with the natives. The aliens are metamorphs and can adopt the shape of their sexual partners. When they return, they discover they each experienced something completely different – different types of partners, different types of sex; and this is anathema to them as they abhor diversity and worship Sameness. It’s not difficult to figure out that the aliens have landed on Earth, and that they are extremely small and their native sexual partners were insects. ‘Shore Leave’ is original to Change the Sky, which no doubt explains its topic – it’s unlikely such a story would have seen print during the 1950s.

In ‘The Wines of Earth’ (1957), a Californian vintner is approached by a quartet of strange visitors, who readily admit to being tourists from another world. They are interested in Earth’s wine, but the best he can offer them in no way compares  to the best they make themselves. There’s a nicely elegiac tone to the story.

‘Asking’ (1955) is one of the collection’s odder pieces. A female robot – and one of only two female protagonists in the entire collection – approaches a robot mechanic for repair. But the mechanic quickly discovers she is human – which she had not known herself. Later, she returns – and she has adopted all the arrogance of the humans over their robot servants. She has been looking for answers to the questions posed by the human who had told her she was a robot. So the mechanic offers her some moonshine… This is one of two stories in Change the Sky in which the answer to the human question is found in a bottle of grain alcohol.

Perhaps the most successful story in the collection is ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1959). Bloom’s Sportsman’s Emporium remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is because there is a creature of darkness hiding in the cellar, and whoever takes the graveyard shift must be eternally vigilant in order to prevent its escape. The story first introduces a few typical customers of the Emporium, and suggests there is something slightly magical about the goods they buy – even going so far as to present a customer who confuses the word “wyvern” for “werewolf”. Another customer is described as “Under the coat, he surmised, she would be spindle-shanked, heavy-breasted and knobby-kneed, with her shoulder gnawed and eroded by the constant tug of shoulder straps”. I’m pretty sure no male writer would ever use the latter half of that description.

A number of the stories in Change the Sky are almost ahead of their time in the way they cross genres. Though presented as science fiction, they happily mix outright fantasy, or present a more slipstream aspect. ‘Fort Iron’ (1955) is the latter. In a desert somewhere, a young officer is assigned as adjutant to the eponymous fort. Everything is slack and lackadaisical, and when he tries to inject some discipline and effect some repairs to the crumbling fort, it has unforeseen consequences. The fort is under attack, slow attack, but by what, and how, is never explained. In many respects, ‘Iron Fort’ would not feel wholly out-of-place in a twenty-first century anthology.

‘The Goddess on the Street Corner’ (1953) is about precisely that. A down-and-out finds Aphrodite living rough on the street and takes her home to look after and worship her. The brandy she needs, however, costs much more than the cheap sherry he normally drinks, and eventually he has to pretend Aphrodite’s faded powers are returning and affecting his life. Few genre stories deal with poverty, and while this one feels in parts a little Capra-esque, it treats its subjects with sensitivity.

Another piece of 1950s sf silliness is ‘An Egg a Month from All Over’ (1952). A man collects eggs and hatches them. They’re delivered to him by post by the Egg-A-Month Club from all over the inhabited galaxy. An egg belonging to a mnxx bird is sent to him, the club mistakenly believing it to belong to a chu lizard. It hatches with fatal consequences. The ending is done well, but the central premise is so daft it robs it of any impact.

‘The Death of Each Day’ (1958) is a science fiction staple: the war is over but everyone continues to fight because they’ve forgotten how to stop. In this particular case, that’s because they’re tranquilised every night and wake up believing the decade-long war has only been running for a day. And that the now-vanquished enemy is still out there to be attacked. But Miriam was wounded, and she’s no longer on the drugs, and when Dick goes to visit her in the hospital – which is suspiciously deserted – she persuades him of the truth.

The final story, ‘Lazarus’ (1955), has a group of journalists being given a guided tour of the JuiciMeat factory, which manufactures cultured beef, pork and veal. They grow each product in rotation in a single giant vat, which starts making strange burbling and thumping noises as the journalists are shown around. Then something strange, and not especially plausible, happens…

It seems strange that an author as prolific as St Clair should now be so obscure. Perhaps she never wrote a novel which captured readers’ fancy to the same extent as some of her contemporaries, but her frequent presence in the magazines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s should at least have given her name some longevity. Admittedly, she did not hide behind a male or gender-neutral pseudonym, but neither did she write genre fiction that might perhaps have made male readers of the time uncomfortable. Of the eighteen stories in Change the Sky, only two have a female protagonists, though most feature women – well-drawn women, usually with agency – in secondary roles. The female customer in ‘Graveyard Shift’ may be subjected to the night clerk’s male gaze, but the details are not typically those a male writer would think to use. Miriam in ‘The Death of Each Day’ is dying of radiation poisoning but she pushes Dick to break free of the drug-induced lie in which he is living. Mazda, the PE&G agent who marries the reverend in ‘An Old Fashioned Bird Christmas’, is the one with the knowledge and the power that drives the story.

Change the Sky is very much a collection of 1950s science fiction stories. Most of them are based on outdated premises, or use a style of storytelling no longer in vogue. They are historical documents for the most part, but they’re more interesting than many other historical documents of the same period. St Clair may have been hugely prolific, but she had a good eye for detail. While many of the stories are somewhat forgettable, one or two do deserve a longer shelf-life than they seem to have been given.

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Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

carmendogCarmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller (1988)
Review by Paul Kincaid

In 1922 the young David Garnett published his first novel, a brief fable called Lady into Fox. It tells the story of Silvia Tebrick, who one day suddenly turns into a vixen, and of her husband, Richard Tebrick, who tries to protect his newly wild spouse until she is eventually killed by the hunt. This was far from being the first work to feature humans transformed into animals. Think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, indeed, Franz Kafka’s novella, ‘The Metamorphosis’, which had appeared, in German, as recently as 1915. But Garnett’s novel was perhaps the first in which we are required to pay attention to the gender of the transformee. Though our attention is more on Richard than Silvia, we might read her increasing wildness as reflecting the increasing independence espoused by the suffragist movement, and the climax suggesting how society, represented by the hunt, crushes women. However we read Garnett’s novel, though, one thing is clear, his central conceit of representing the role of woman by changing her into an animal has become almost a commonplace of later, particularly feminist, science fiction. We still see some iteration of this today in the work of writers such as Kij Johnson, but probably the most extravagant, significant and certainly funniest expression of the trope was in another first novel, Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller.

Emshwiller had been writing short stories since the 1950s, so the debut novel, published in 1988, was long delayed. Story titles like ‘Sex And/Or Mr Morrison’ (from Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967)) gave notice that relations between the sexes would be a significant theme in her work. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the extraordinary satirical joie de vivre that is such a feature of Carmen Dog. Oh the satire is angry enough, but never bitter, and there is real elation in the inventive way Emshwiller plays with ideas all the way through the novel.

There are no half measures in Carmen Dog: this is not the story of one woman transformed into an animal, but all women; while, reciprocally, animals change into women. The change has already begun as the novel opens, though it is not yet as widespread as it will become. Before we are even introduced to our heroine, we learn that:

red-headed, plump Christine who had, several times, been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all. (p2)

That passage is actually a fair representation of Emshwiller’s style throughout the novel: brisk, allusive, kaleidoscopic, skimming across the surface of the change without going into too much unnecessary detail (do we need to know exactly what Mona is turning into, or what Mabel used to be?). The women (and animals) are named, though we will never meet any of them again; the men mostly aren’t. Men are titles, roles, “the psychologist,” “the husband.” They are stolid, unchanging, uninterested, and uninteresting; many of them seem to have little or no awareness of the extraordinary societal changes going on around them. Men are mostly the villains in this story as well, though that is not to impute a simplistic all-men-are-bad, all-women-are-good attitude to the novel. The villainy stems mostly from incomprehension: we are in a whole world of the women men don’t see.

Our heroine is Pooch, whose dogness remains as a rather endearing part of her character throughout the novel (though the name presumably says something about the unimaginativeness of the unnamed husband and wife who begin our story as her owners). The wife is turning into a vicious snapping turtle, the husband simply wants the smooth surface of his life to continue undisturbed, and Pooch, slowly becoming human, finds more domestic responsibilities falling upon her: taking care of the children, shopping, cleaning, and so on. She takes all this on out of an innate loyalty, or perhaps more precisely a desire to be loyal, that remains one of her abiding characteristics whatever else happens to her. When, eventually, she gets to see the psychologist (tellingly, all these transformations are seen only as psychological problems for the women) his perceptions are comically banal:

It is clear that Pooch has always wanted to be of service to mankind in any way that she possibly could and from the general look of her, he would guess that her retrieving instincts are strong and that she might be passionately interested in swimming. (p4)

Apply those perceptions to a dog and they tell us only about what we humans have created through breeding and training; apply them to a woman . . . But such is the magic of Emshwiller’s work.

Of course, we have no sooner met Pooch in her cosy but clearly unsatisfactory domestic situation, than she is forced to flee. What follows is a typical picaresque in which our innocent and unwary heroine faces the threats and temptations of the big bad city. These encounters allow us to witness the plight of women-creatures in this new reality, while Pooch, like picaresque heroines of old (Fanny Hill, say, or Justine), remains resolutely undepraved by the depravity she experiences. There is the city pound (equivalent of a gaol and treated as such), where she gives her collar to another dog in danger of being put down, so that it might prove it is owned and thus escape death. There is another version of a prison when she and her friends from the pound are held by the psychologist, who wants to conduct experiments on these new not-quite-people. Here Pooch learns to compose poetry (so we can see her as a civilized person, even if the psychologist cannot), and thrives in the community of her fellows (it is a commonplace in the feminist SF of the period that women are mutually supportive and act communally, while men are isolated and individualist). Given how much the dog part of her character still craves a master to whom she can be loyal, this situation would suit Pooch well were it not for the increasing use of pain in the psychologist’s experiments. Instead, she fights back, and escapes.

The next part of this picaresque sees Pooch wandering the city alone, seeing an opera and discovering a desire to sing, then falling in with a libertine who also happens to be the opera impresario. Finally, she is drawn back to the psychologist’s home in the hope of rescuing her fellows, only to discover that the psychologist’s wife is actually the leader of a secret liberation movement. In other words, the choice facing our women-creatures has gone from one between ownership or death in the pound, to one between freedom or imprisonment now that they have taken control of their own future.

It was a time when feminist SF tended to lay out its wares in bold, not to say garish, contrasts, and Emshwiller is not immune to that. But Emshwiller makes a virtue of the broad strokes, making it a part of the comedy of her novel. Big and foolish things happen, because that is precisely in the nature of such satires; but these big and foolish things are handled wittily, so that we find ourselves laughing at them and with them at the same time. We feel for Pooch as a sort of Everywoman as she makes her way through various misadventures, and we hiss at the pantomime villain men; but they are not entirely villainous, and there are good men discovered along the way, and the story has a happy ending because such stories need to have a happy ending.

Emshwiller’s novel is a curious mid-career debut, but there are first novel faults and she has become an even more sophisticated writer since then. None of that spoils the sheer exhilaration of this work. It remains one of the most striking and powerful examples of feminist SF.

This review originally appeared on Strange Horizons.

Cyberstealth, SN Lewitt

cyberstealthCyberstealth, SN Lewitt (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

There is no clue on the cover or back-cover blurb that Cyberstealth is the product of a woman sf writer. It’s pure Top Gun military sf and presented as such –  from the tagline “It’s not easy being the best…” to an approving puff by David Drake, and cover art depicting a handsome male lead and the latest in combat spacecraft. While Cyberstealth is more resolutely mil sf – perhaps even to the point of cliché – there is much in it familiar to readers of Lewitt’s debut, Angel at Apogee. Both feature as protagonists an outsider in an elite branch of the military, and make use of a non-Anglophone culture – Romany in this case; and it’s much better integrated than in her debut.

Cargo was a Romany juvenile delinquent adopted by Bishop Andre Mirabeau, a powerful and well-respected diplomat and politician in the Collegium, a polity of worlds comprising human and alien Akhaid. As Cyberstealth opens, Cargo and his “Eyes”, Ghoster, an Akhaid, have just been transferred from their normal fighter wing to an elite group, where they will fly super-sophisticated stealth batwing spacecraft. They soon learn that there is a spy among their intake of four pilots and four Eyes. Fourways, the commandant of the training facility seems to suspect Cargo.

The Collegium is currently at war with the Cardia, an alliance of breakaway worlds formed after the Luxor Incident, a terrorist attack on a holiday planet. Cargo and Ghoster had flown kraits – star-fighters – against Cardia fighters, and shortly before their transfer to the batwing group, were under investigation for a possible friendly fire incident. Cargo’s wingman, also an adoptee of the Bishop, was killed, and Cargo may have fired the fatal shot. He is cleared by an investigation, but it does make him prime suspect as the traitor.

The first section of Cyberstealth, in which Cargo learns how to fly the batwing, is chiefly introduction to the universe of the story and its cast. Flashbacks detail Cargo’s childhood, and his Romany culture. He finds himself disliking fellow batwing trainee pilot Stonewall, but cannot work out why – but he does think Stonewall may be the spy. He also falls in love with Plato, another fellow trainee.

But then another pilot makes a slip, is interrogated, subsequently commits suicide and it seems the spy has been found. So the group is assigned to a carrier, and their first mission is to accompany the Bishop on a secret goodwill visit to a Cardia world, Marcanter. Complicating matters is the fact that Marcanter is home to the Cardia equivalent of the batwings, called mirages. Cargo and Ghoster are tasked with infiltrating the mirage base. They pull a Firefox –  pretend to be Cardia and steal one of the enemy craft during an attack on the Collegium carrier. Obviously, there is still a traitor in the batwing group, because how else would the Cardia mirages had known where to find the hidden carrier? Cargo saves the day… and then discovers the identity of the traitor…

Lewitt is clearly a firm believer in “show don’t tell” and throws the reader straight in at the deep end. Readers are left to puzzle out the meanings of neologisms from context, and the background is revealed piecemeal, often making the story more confusing than it would otherwise be. Lewitt had also plainly watched Top Gun a few times too often, and Cyberstealth is filled with pilot jargon – some of it obviously invented, but much of it based on the sort of dialogue found in gung-ho military pilot movies. As a result, it takes a while for the novel to get going, and the human characters often feel as alien as the Akhaid.

It is also a bizarrely colourful universe in Cyberstealth. There are frequent descriptions of the spacecraft and, with the exception of the matt black batwing, most seemed to have been “burned” in various dayglo colours like yellow or purple. There are lingering descriptions of food, particularly in the sections set in the Bishop’s point of view. These make for an oddly unbalanced story, conflicting with the macho, hard sf nature of the batwings and Cargo’s experience flying them.

But even that too doesn’t really fit with the Top Gun image presented by the characters. The cyber- in Cyberstealth refers to the “Maze”, the neural interface by which the pilots fly their craft – and interact with their alien crewmates. Lewitt’s Maze is not as clumsy a metaphor as Cherryh’s in Voyager in Night, but the cyberpunk-ish edge to what is essentially a routine Sierra Hotel pilot space opera story never really quite gels.

There are things to like in Lewitt’s fiction: she builds interesting worlds for her stories, her prose is usually good, and she puts interesting spins on somewhat clichéd stories and situations. Her refusal to explain does mean her novels need to be initially taken on trust more so than other writers, but it pays off – her novels are very immersive. Cyberstealth reads like an early work by a writer who was clear from the start how she wanted to tell stories, but still needed more practice in successfully putting the various parts together. It’s perhaps too much like space opera to appeal to fans of military sf, and not quite polished enough to appeal to fans of space opera. It was followed by a sequel, Dancing Vac, and SN Lewitt – eventually using her full name, Shariann Lewitt – then went on to write some very good sf novels.

Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker

mendozainhollywoodMendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker (2000)
Review by Paul Kincaid

Once, long ago, Mark Twain presented his time traveller with a world in which everyone spoke in cod-medieval except for the Connecticut Yankee himself, whose no-nonsense language proved both engaging and salutary to the people of Arthur’s court. Since then, however, writers of time travel stories have made more effort to have their traveller blend in with local time, including speaking in a language that approximates ever more closely to what might actually have been spoken at the time. Of late, however, a curious trend has started to emerge in this type of science fiction. You see it, for instance, in novels like John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, when not only do the time travellers maintain their modern habits of speech but the people in the time they visit have started to adopt the same language. Now Kage Baker has taken it a step further in her series of novels about ‘The Company’ which has reached its third volume. Here the characters come from the past, but they have been made into immortal cyborgs by visitors from our future, and in their endless journey through time they have picked up a wealth of knowledge of cultures that have not yet happened.

This novel, for instance, is set in 1862 in the wild, drought-stricken hills that would, another half-century down the line, be Hollywood. Not one of these characters has actually seen the 20th Century, but that doesn’t alter the fact that everything they see around them is coloured by the films that will one day be made here. Nor does any of them fail to talk as if they have habituated the late 20th Century all their lives. For these cyborgs the length of their experience (at least centuries, in some cases millennia) has shaped them less than a movie or two. That we accept this as readily as we do while reading this novel says something curious about our perceptions of ourselves and of our culture, I wish I knew what it was.

While centuries of life have done little to shape these characters, it certainly helps to shape the plot. In her first outing, In The Garden Of Iden, immortal Mendoza fell in love with a mortal in Tudor England, only to lose him to the flames of religious intolerance. Now, three centuries and half a world away, she meets him again, or rather she meets another Englishman with the same appearance and the same mannerisms as her lover. This particular Englishman is a spy involved in a hare-brained plot to aid the Confederacy and so wrest California into British rule, but the ramifications of this plot could involve a strange spiritualist episode in 1920s Hollywood and the origins of ‘The Company’ itself. Stirred by the apparent rebirth of her lover, Mendoza embarks on a madcap race to help him, and to keep him alive. It is doomed to failure, of course: this is a determinist universe, the future is known and unchangeable, events move with the inevitability of tragedy but the sprightliness of farce. From the moment the Englishman appears, we are swept along by engaging characters, wacky plot, incident piled upon incident. Baker has a light touch and an ability to keep the pace just right, this is wonderfully entertaining adventure written as light comedy.

Unfortunately, the Englishman does not appear until more than two-thirds of the way through the book. Until he does, what we have is stodgy and ill-controlled. We get endless scene-setting and heavy-handed foreshadowing, but we don’t get the plot that this book so desperately needs to get it going. Instead there is a series of episodic incidents which don’t form a coherent whole and which are mostly played for laughs – Baker’s touch with comedy is much more assured when it arises from sustained action rather than being presented as a series of sketches. Throughout this part of the book Mendoza’s companions are painted with a very broad brush and with little finesse, while Mendoza herself is simply morose. She does not engage either our sympathies or our interest until her lover appears on the scene and suddenly injects a spark of life into her. It reads, for all the world, as if Baker was simply intent upon continuing her series but had no real story to tell until she happened upon the English conspiracy plot. And, of course, coming so late in the book it is necessarily truncated, making this a curiously ill-formed novel. Given how well the whole thing takes off during the final section, that is a real pity.

This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 144, August 2000