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The Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett

February 17, 2015

halflingThe 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

February 12, 2015

ShardsofHonorShards 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

February 10, 2015

cautionary_talesCautionary 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.

A Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman

February 5, 2015

cupfulA Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman (1961)
Review by admiral ironbombs

In the 1950s and 1960s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction featured a good number of women writers like Zenna Henderson, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Miriam Allen deFord, and Mildred Clingerman. Back then they were strongly associated with the magazine; now they are much less well-known, overlooked by many SF readers. As I read through those old issues, I find myself drawn to these unknown authors by the quality of their writing; Clingerman’s story ‘The Wild Wood’ impressed me enough that I tracked down a collection of her work. Stellar cover art by Richard Powers didn’t hurt.

Clingerman’s 1961 collection A Cupful of Space includes 16 stories, most of them from F&SF; it forms an almost complete collection of Clingerman’s work as she only wrote three more, one the next year and two more in 1975. It’s assumed her career ended due to the same unfortunate circumstance that caused other such talented women to stop writing SFF: her husband asked her to stop.

‘First Lesson’ (Collier’s, June 1956). Our unnamed protagonist’s husband Hugh is a paratrooper training in the South, soon to be shipped out to the European Theater. But for the past few months as Hugh makes his first night jump, she’s been having a growing nightmare: Hugh making a jump, drifting down and impaled on a jagged fence-post. When her maid Iris finds her moping and hears of her nightmare, Iris offers up a solution that may get Hugh through alive. A well-written story, commentary on the power of faith and superstition with its surprise revelation.

‘Stickeney and the Critic’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). When the Bottle family settled in Oklahoma, their farm was built next to the strange stone well and stone barn home to what the natives called Stickeney – some kind of ancient monster living in the well’s oily waters. The Bottle children fed it chickens when their parents weren’t watching, and have thrown it a chicken once a year ever since. Enter a critic – scholar of the one Bottle son who fled to England and became a poet, hoping to see the old homestead. Equal parts horror and tongue-in-cheek send-up of horror stories, it’s a well-crafted piece.

‘Stair Trick’ (F&SF, Aug 1952). You’ve seen the stair trick without knowing what it is – the gag where someone pantomimes walking down stairs, crouching while the lower half of their body is obscured by something. Dick the bartender does that gag every night to thrill the regulars and confuse the newcomers – but for him the trick is real to him, as he walks into another dimension. A surreal idea wrapped up in a short, insubstantial story.

‘Minister Without Portfolio’ (F&SF, Feb 1952). Mrs Chriswell is a decent old soul, but now that her husband has passed and she’s living with her son’s family, she feels like an outsider with nothing to do. Sent out by her hostile daughter-in-law to do some birdwatching, she bumps into a group of strange men and their “low, silvery aircraft of some unusual design”. They are, of course, aliens, though Mrs Chriswell doesn’t realize this; all they want is to ask some questions about Earth, and desperate for pleasant conversation, Mrs Chriswell is willing to oblige. A cute moral fable where a colorblind old woman shows that yes, there may be something on Earth worth saving after all.

‘Birds Can’t Count’ (F&SF, Feb 1955). Recovering from a hangover, Maggie tries reading herself to sleep by picking up an old book on birdwatching. But she can’t quite get over the shadow she sees moving in the corner of her eye, which perturbs her cat as well. The theme of birdwatching comes full circle – intergalactic bird watchers? – only the alien observer is more interested in the cat than Maggie. An amusing trifle.

‘The Word’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). A trio of space explorers break the cardinal rule and leave their ship, venturing among the lifeforms they study. They blend in well with the children, poor figures with the faces of crones and skeletons and dressed in rags; they struggle to learn “the word,” which turns out to be “triggertree” – trick or treat, geddit? You should catch on pretty quick. Like several other stories in the collection, it’s a decent short told in a giddy, whimsical tone.

‘The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak’ (F&SF, July 1958). Timid and mousy Mavis feels trapped, settling for a bore of a fiancé named Hubert who set to work “fibering her up” and she “had shudderingly tried pot-gardening, dog-patting, and automobile-driving”. Her bold venture is to use her savings to buy a luxurious green velvet cloak, and head to the Book Nook in search of her favorite reading material, Victorian travel journals. It turns out the owner of the Book Nook was looking for this journal too; he was one of the people on that trip, and wants to read through the entries until he finds the point where he was thrown forward in time. A kind of fairy-tale where time-travel gives Mavis more moral fiber and character than Hubert ever could;

‘Winning Recipe’ (Collier’s, June 1952). Miss Clare shares a house with her oppressive brother, John. He’s always bringing home more and more machines and devices, arguing that this progress will make Clare’s life easier and telling her to “stop sniveling” as she finds herself replaced by automation. With this last one, she’s taking a stand: she will not surrender cooking, her last beloved duty, to the Kitchen Autocrat. If only she could find a recipe it can’t handle… As a story, it’s a thin satire, but it voices a viable concern women might have felt about technology at the time.

‘Letters from Laura’ (F&SF, Oct 1954). Told in epistolary form as a series of letters home to her best friend and mother, Laura takes a Grab Bag Tours trip to the past in hopes of a thrill. Sad to say, she doesn’t get the thrill she was after, and it turns out ancient Crete and the labyrinth of the Minotaur are not as interesting as history and myth make them out to be. Not Clingerman’s strongest piece – I found Laura kind of a snob, and think epistolary stories are interesting but awkward in short works – but it’s interesting how the author touches on themes of female sexuality and time-travel tourism. The twist is a subtle one: the salesman who pitches her this trip also makes sure to up-sell “insurance,” having cut a deal with the Minotaur, but if you recall your mythology the Minotaur only eats virgins…

‘The Last Prophet’ (F&SF, Aug 1955). Reggie is well-known as the local party boor, and any time he shows up at a party he’s doomed to kill all interest and drive everyone away. The problem is that, without fail, he’ll somehow launch into his mantra about the great discovery he’s made, someone that always occurs twenty minutes after the hour. While his discovery is of vital importance, nobody is willing to listen to him long enough to hear it – and even then, Reggie may run out of time before he can reveal what he’s learned, making him the last (if unfulfilled) prophet. Another whimsical tale that turns oddly metaphysical near its end; not my favorite, but not entirely without merit.

‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt’ (F&SF, Jan 1956). Our narrator and Miss Mattie ride the train round-trip at least twice a week, Miss Mattie looking for the stop that her beau, Mr Sakrison, stopped off at many years ago. She retells the tale every time: he was a traveling Yankee, she a young Southern gal, and together they fell in love. One train ride into the big city, the train stopped unexpected, and Mr Sakrison wandered off into a strange place – a place where there were no drinking fountains labelled white or colored, a place where black and white folk mingled, a place beyond segregation – a place he never left, as the train chugged along. Miss Mattie hopes the train will once again make that stop, and will ride until it does… A heady piece for the Jim Crow era, a love story through space and time and a “future” of racial equality. The bitter undertone at the end condemns racism, alluding to burning crosses and hounds baying in the woods.

‘The Wild Wood’ (F&SF, Jan 1957). Margret and her family shop at the same store for a Christmas tree every year, a simple family ritual but one that Margret loathes. She’s unnerved by the store owner, a lecherous creep; in the past he felt Margret up, giving her horrible dream-state visions. But Margret is compelled to return year after year, unable to escape. As mentioned, I was impressed when I previously reviewed this story; it chilled me this time as well. A well-written and unsettling horror tale dealing with violation of self and control, disturbing due to its surprisingly sexual nature and creepy, intrusive shop-owner. I’d say it’s the best in the collection, and the best Clingerman wrote.

‘The Little Witch of Elm Street’ (Woman’s Home Companion, 1956). When the Bayard family moves to Elm Street, eldest daughter Garnet goes from home to home, warning all the inhabitants of their rambunctious toddler Nina. And Nina proves to be hell on wheels, biting the mailman, running down groups of ten-year-old boys on her tricycle. Garnet and our unnamed housewife protagonist are determined to do something to fix this; Garnet has occult rituals in mind, an exorcism of sorts. But when the bad spirits are driven out of this toddler, who will they inhabit next? A nice piece of fantasy from a mainstream publication, and it fits the pattern of domestic setting and married female protagonist.

‘A Day for Waving’ (F&SF, Aug 1957). Young Eden is jealous of her mother’s affection and plans to remarry a bucktoothed dentist, worrying about the jealousy of a dead father she can barely remember. Today, she, her mother, her grandmother, and her brother Lyle are heading into the graveyard to see the graves of their relatives, father included. Told from a child’s perspective, the story is unique in its fantastic obfuscations, which helps obscure its ghost story elements in among truth and hyperbole.

‘The Gay Deceiver’. Verna has been travelling the world with Papa Frolic for a while now, going from town to town to delight all the children with a magical parade full of whistles and balloons. And for every balloon Papa Frolic sells, he’ll give away ten times as many to children in the poor side of town. But why is Verna worried about the evils of the world, and the mysterious deaths that occur in towns they’ve just passed through? Original to this collection, it’s a capable horror tale, homage and retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

‘A Red Heart and Blue Roses’. Our protagonist and another woman discuss family and talk about the holidays; as their dialogue progresses, we realize they are in a mental institution, and may be one and the same person. Our unreliable narrator(s) retell a tale of their son bringing home a strange friend for Christmas who refused to leave, a strange being that, much like a cuckoo, attempts to take over the empty nest vacated by the real son when he left to join the Navy. Also original to this collection, it’s another horror tale of male intrusion, violating the normalcy of the family homestead; the plotting is murky and complex thanks to our crazed narrator(s) which makes it hard to follow, but the horror is palpable.

‘The Bottom Line’. To my surprise, while she’s categorized as a science fiction author, much of what Mildred Clingerman wrote would be called something like “slipstream” or “magical realism” today – a melange of the fantastic and the horrific underlying our mundane reality, a journey to where Matheson and Bradbury intersect by way of The Twilight Zone. She wrote stories of whimsy and dread in a literate tone; her vivid protagonists are often married women or housewives, slices of domestic life threatened by intrusive monsters, time-travelers, or aliens. Most of her stories are very short, a few thousand words and often less; as such, several are just a lead-up to a cutesy surprise ending. They would have made ideal Twilight Zone episodes, showing the same blend of humor, horror, and social consciousness that Rod Serling employed.

The overall quality of her stories is good, and Clingerman was impressive at her best. ‘The Wild Wood’ I’d argue is the high point, a potent horror tale of male intrusiveness and the loss of self. ‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt”’is a brilliant time-travel love-story and critique of racial inequality in America, inspired perhaps by the failed Civil Rights Act of 1956 (HR 627, as opposed to the successful act the next year). ‘Minister Without Portfolio’ and ‘Green Velvet Cloak’ are warm, light-hearted stories; the first espouses that humanity is not without redemption, the second that even the most faint-hearted can gain some courage. ‘A Day for Waving’ is a memorable ghost story; ‘Letters from Laura’ is a neat twist on myth. Most of the rest are amusing trifles: charming, well-written, and lighthearted, but neither ambitious or substantial. If you’re looking for pure SF, Clingerman won’t deliver, but she knocks the fantastic and the wondrous out of the park. With a distinct woman’s voice, too. A collection for us collectors to keep an eye out for, with several underrated gems inside.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

Voodoo Planet, Andre Norton

February 3, 2015

voodooVoodoo Planet, Andre Norton (1959)
Review by Martin Wisse

Genre science fiction got its start in the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties and many of its early writers were just pulp authors writing the same old stories they’d always written, just with some sf flavourings. So instead of the brave sheriff depending on his horse and trusty six-gun to fight off the bandits out in the Oklahoma badlands, you got the brave space marshal depending on his trusty rocket and raygun to take out the bandits hiding out in the Martian badlands. It’s this that fans meant when they talked about space opera, before that got co-opted for something more respectable, crappy fake science fiction stories that might just as well have been westerns. As the field matured and new writers moved in actually interested in science fiction as a genre, these stories quickly disappeared.

Even so, they never completely went away and every now and then you run across a story whose pulp roots are clearly visible, even with a writer like Andre Norton. Voodoo Planet, as you may have guessed, is one example. The sequel to Plague Ship, this is another adventure of the crew of the Solar Queen, who have been invited to a big game hunt on Khatka, a planet settled by African colonists, where they run straight into a trap set by the resident witch doctor.

Which is just as pulpy as it sounds. Khatka is a planet that’s like the Africa out of pulp magazines, mostly untamed wilderness full of dangerous animals, while the natives are somewhat more sophisticated than in the pre-war pulps. Norton is at pains to emphasise that Khatka is just as civilised a planet as any other, they just prefer the primitive life of their terran ancestors. It’s all a bit separate but equal, not very progressive even for the fifties.

The plot doesn’t help, pitting the rational crew of the Solar Queen against one of the hoariest of pulp clichés, the evil medicine man who uses superstition to oppress the hapless natives. Even though the various black characters are just as well rounded as the Solar Queen’s men, ie, solidly two-dimensional, that kind of plot still taps into all sorts of racist, colonial imagery. Again, Norton does seem to do her best to avoid this, but the shape of the story works against her. It remains too obviously a pulp African adventure transplanted to a science fiction setting. Not her best story.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder

January 29, 2015

brins5The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Another science fiction novel that seems to have bounced from adult sf to Young Adult and back again. The Luck of Brin’s Five was published as adult sf in the US, but as children’s fiction in Australia (Wilder is from New Zealand). In truth, the book can pass as either. It’s a simple story, told simply, but its alien world is well-evoked and well-rendered. There are other sf novels less sophisticated than this that have never been considered children’s fiction or YA.

On the world of Torin, orbiting 70 Ophiuchi, the native Moruians organise themselves into family’s of five – three adults (either two male and one female, or two female and one male), an Ancient (the parent of one of the adults) and a Luck (a disapled person, either by injury or from birth). There are also usually children – the Moruians are marsupials, so some may be “hidden”, ie, still in the mother’s pouch. Brin’s Five – Brin, Mamor, Harper Roy and Old Gwin – have just lost their Luck, Odd-Eyes (so called because his eyes were different colours), to old age. But as they lay Odd-Eyes to rest, a spacecraft crashes into Warm Lake, and the Five manage to rescue its pilot. This is Scott Gale, a human male, one of four scientists studying the planet unbeknownst to the Moruians from their base on a distant island. The Moruians are humanoid – their chief differences from humans are larger eyes that stretch up to the temples, a slighter build, and less differences between the two genders (so much so that Moruians often can’t immediately tell the sex of another Moruian). Brin’s Five adopts Gale as their Luck, and gives him the name Diver.

Gale’s arrival, however, has not gone unnoticed. The Great Elder – the chief of the ruling council of five – manages to retrieve Gale’s spacecraft, but he also wants the pilot. Fortunately, Gale can pass as a Moruian if he wraps up well and he wears goggles. He also picks up the Moruian language very quickly (so quickly, in fact, that no one remarks on any accent or strangenesses produced by the human larynx). The Moruian society is peaceful, war has not been known for many centuries, and is technologically on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Some industrial processes are known, though most industries are still cottage-based and much of the population is agrarian. They do have flight, however – pedal-powered gliders, balloons, and perhaps even some steam-powered craft. Brin’s Five are weavers, pretty much country yokels, and at the moment of the social order. There are also townees, and an aristocracy, grandees.

Brin’s Five agree to take Gale to Rintoul, the capital, to meet the Maker of Engines, a Moruian scientist currently at odds with the Great Elder. En route, they discover an abandoned glider, Gale uses the batteries from some of his devices to power propellers on it, and they decide to enter it into the Bird Clan, an annual air race. Which Gale then wins. By this point, they’re making a poor effort at hiding their human Luck. And the Great Elder’s minions have made several attempts to take Gale from them. When the family does reach Rintoul, Gale is captured, a meeting of the council is held, but the Great Elder is defeated on a point of law, and Gale is allowed to join his family.

The story of The Luck of Brin’s Five is told by Dorn, the eldest of Brin’s Five three children. Perhaps this is why the Australian publisher chose to publish the book as children’s fiction. Certainly, Dorn is an unsophisticated narrator. But he’s also a clever choice, because he’s young enough to be happy to explain things he already knows to the alien Gale. The world of Torin may not be entirely convincing, but it’s one with bags of charm. Even the villains are nice. Despite a couple of violent set-pieces, Gale never really seems to be in much jeopardy – and even at the dénouement, the Great Elder backs down with suspicious ease.

But, for all that, The Luck of Brin’s Five is a breezy read. Novels set in alien societies and told from the alien point of view are difficult to pull off. Make the viewpoint too alien, and readers cannot sympathise; make them too human, and suspension of disbelief is lost. Wilder manages her balancing trick with ease and, not only that, even succeeds in making Gale seem somewhat alien to the reader. This is a light book, but quite a fun one. Although complete in and of itself, The Luck of Brin’s Five spawned a pair of sequels: The Nearest Fire (1980) and The Tapestry Warriors (1983). I am tempted to track down copies.

Barryar, Lois McMaster Bujold

January 27, 2015

BarrayarBarryar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Martin Wisse

Barrayar was actually the first ever Bujold story I ever read and I hated it. That’s because it was the last part of its serialisation in Analog that I read and I had no idea of what was going. Coming back to it now, after having read all the Miles Vorkosigan books at least once, I enjoyed it much more. Like any prequel Barrayar depends for some of its impact on the reader’s knowledge of the main series. If you don’t know who Miles Vorkosigan is and why he is the incredibly determined little mutant runt that he is when we first met him in The Warrior’s Apprentice, the details of how he got to be that way won’t matter all that much.

Chronologically, Barrayar takes place almost immediately after Shards of Honor and is the second and so far last novel to star Cordelia Vorkosigan/Ransom. Cordelia and Aral are settling in to newly married live on Barrayar, with Cordelia pregnant with Miles. Then the old emperor dies and Aral becomes regent to his young grandson and he and Cordelia are soon plunged into the dangerous, still very medieval politics of the Barrayaran court and nobility. How dangerous Cordelia only realises when they’re the victims of an assassination attempt, with poison gas grenades thrown into their house.

They survive, but the antidote Cordelia has to take to counteract the poison gas has a very bad side effect, acting as a teratogenic agent on the fetus she is carrying, posing a real risk to its bone development. Normally there would be nothing for it but to abort the fetus or risk a stillbirth, but Cordelia is not the type of woman to just give up. On a more civilised planet, where medical science was more advanced, there would be chance for the baby, as it could be put into an uterine replicator and treated outside the womb. But Barrayar doesn’t have any of them, or does it?

There are after all still the uterine replicators which housed the children born of the rape of female prisoners of war taken in Barrayar’s last war, which had been forgotten about after they served their purposes. Cordelia manages to track them down, get Miles installed in one and get a bone strengthening programme going on. It takes all her strength but she gets her way and everything looks to be on the up and then the civil war breaks out.

And Miles is behind enemy lines, in the capital, trapped with the rebels. So Cordelia decides to go and get him to safety. Which is sort of where I came in the first time I read this, in the last third of the story. No wonder I was confused.

In retrospect, Barrayar is a turning point in the Vorkosigan series. The novels before it had been cleverly written, more intelligent than they needed to be, light science fiction adventure stories. With Barrayar the series took a leap in quality and became more serious and slightly darker, setting the tone for later entries like Mirror Dance and Memory.

Barrayar is also another reminder of how subtle Bujold can be in showing the effects of her science fictional technology. There isn’t any of the technogeekery or infodumping of some authors I could mention, but at the same time the plot is very much driven by a classic piece of science fiction kit, the artificial womb or uterine replicator. Here it is more of a macguffin of course, something for the protagonist to chase, but over the course of the series we slowly see the impact the introduction of uterine replicators has on Barrayaran society. And here is where it started.

Barrayar is not the best of the Vorkosigan series, but it is the best of the early part of the series. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the earlier published novels yet.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

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