Polar City Blues, Katharine Kerr

polar-city-bluesPolar City Blues, Katharine Kerr (1990)
Review by admiral ironbombs

The universe is dominated by two gigantic factions, the Interstellar Confederation and the Coreward Alliance. Humans from Earth have created a small Republic, which finds itself – as its citizens like to joke – caught between the Cons and the ‘Lies, a pawn in the game of interstellar politics fighting to keep its independence. Polar City is also something of a joke, a provincial colony of the Republic on an isolated desert planet, its corrupt and bribable government playing host to embassies of the Republic’s neighbors. When one of the alien embassy staff is found dead, police chief Al Bates finds himself caught in the intrigues of the two great powers. When he makes use of local psychic Mulligan, only for Mulligan to suffer some psychic backlash that knocks him into an amnesic state after he tries to investigate the crime scene.

Bates is forced to turn to Bobbie Lacey, formerly a hotshot pilot with the Republic Navy and now the Polar City underworld’s best fixer – an information broker, hacker, and general jack-of-all-trades when it comes to criminal enterprises. Lacey begins her own investigation, with an advanced AI and her friend Mulligan in tow, going where the police can’t. And in the course of her search, she finds a lot more than she signed up for. A political assassin is in town, offing any potential witnesses before moving on to priority targets. A strange bacteria is unearthed, a deadly contagion which eats away skin and hair and may not have a cure. And Mulligan begins picking up psychic communication from a mysterious alien race, potentially the cause of the assassinations and political machinations…

I’ve read that Kerr wrote Polar City Blues as a tribute to the SF she read as a teenager, and there’s certainly a lot of SF elements shared with earlier works – I have to wonder if The Demolished Man was one, given the similarities between the two (SF crime novels with strong psychic/psionic elements). Given its place in time, it shouldn’t be surprising that it looks at first like cyberpunk, with the mystery-crime elements, the whores and pimps and gritty port-town atmosphere that would fit well in Gibson’s Chiba City. But aside from a few AIs, it doesn’t have many hard-edged cyberpunk gadgets or themes; psiberpunk, perhaps? Instead of the faux-code that some cyberpunk novels use to represent cyberspace, Polar City Blues uses a similar style to represent psychic mind-speak, complete with emotion tags:

Big brother >need me?
>Need talk Lacey> BUT| >cop goes away.
Okay\ BUT| >cop goes, Lacey goes>>
[aggravation] She can wait\not wait?
Not wait. Big brother, woman Sally name/Lacey friend\ real danger [fear] >>throat slashed open. >Lacey find/must find\ before then.

Other elements, though, flip the traditional narratives on their heads. Kerr’s future is one where Caucasians are a small minority within the Republic’s populace, where “black” characters are both the majority and the ruling class. It’s reflected by the snippets of Spanish and references to Islam that pepper the text, elements of a melting-pot culture with a heavy Latino influences. Most of the characters use a lower-class slang full of Spanish phrases—Merrkan, by way of ‘Murican I assume—which has the bad tendency of replacing more complex contractions (“don’t,” “won’t”) with “no,” making everyone sound uncomfortably close to a bad Latino stereotype: “I no go any closer. I no can,” “I no mean that,” etc. It’s also a bit odd examining racism through the eyes of Mulligan in the white minority, especially as he’s branded as a psychic in a world that’s somewhat suspicious of mental powers.

Meanwhile, the story takes the basic “damsel in distress” plot and inverts it. The scrawny Mulligan as the “damsel”, wishing he wasn’t psychic so he could fulfill of dream of playing pro baseball, while the tough-as-nails Lacey is the heroine coming in for the rescue. And it somewhat inverts the old space operas written during the Cold War: instead of making the humans one of the two dominant factions, the human Republic instead plays the part of the Non-Aligned Movement, jammed between two powerful factions, keeping its freedom by cunning and dirty tricks.

Polar City Blues blends a rip-roaring space opera with an SF detective novel; while it has its quirks, overall it’s pretty good entertainment, a compelling, very readable novel. Kerr develops a slew of interesting characters, keeps the plot moving along at a fast clip, and she handles the mystery elements very well. The way that Kerr uses social commentary that makes the novel something more than just a science-fiction adventure; she touches on themes of class, prejudice, race, and gender, giving the novel additional depth without making the characters any less approachable or sympathetic. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed novel, but one with quite a few thought-provoking elements.

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

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs


Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.”

It was human overpopulation that drove the exploration of space, the great flight from Terra for other habitable planets with more living space. When all is said and done, the balance of power rests in the hands of Sanctity, a fundamentalist religion turned power bloc that promises its adherents will live forever in its genetic banks. But not even Sanctity and its cloned afterlife is safe from the plague that may doom the dispersed humanity: a roiling miasma of death that kills any human or animal it touches, with life wasting away in a haze of gray lesions and gooey decay. Rumors say that the planet Grass is free from the plague – Grass, named for its endless oceans of green prairie – and so Sanctity’s heirarch names his Catholic nephew Rigo Yrarier the ambassador to Grass, sending him and his family with a secret mission to investigate Grass for signs of plague – or, hopefully, signs of a cure.

Rigo and his wife Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier are both Olympic equestrians, and Sanctity hopes that their experience as riders may be an inroad to Grassian society. Grass has a strong classist system where the elite aristocracy – the Bons, descended from Europeans who fled Sanctity’s intrusion – live in grand estancias, their existence revolving around their near-continuous Hunt. They stay at arms-reach from the commoners huddled around the planet’s only port; nor do they care much for the “Green Brothers”, Sanctified monks all but banished to Grass, excavating the ruins of long-dead alien species called the Arbai. But with the Bons, what the Yrariers find is a dark mockery of a Terran fox-hunt: utilizing “native equivalents”, the Bons ride barbed Hippae alongside frothing Hounds, running down or harpooning the strange, wailing Foxen. To the Bons, a horse is but a common animal in front of the Hippae. And it’s the Hippae who hold the answers to Grass’s secrets, displaying a dark and malevolent intelligence behind their blood-red eyes.

Marjorie is the unlikely heroine: middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and now stuck on a planet known for its bizarre rituals and distrust of outsiders. Her husband and daughter plan to ride Hippae and join the Hunt, not wanting to lose face in front of the Bons; when her daughter vanishes during the Hunt, Marjorie sets out to find her with a group of odd companions, including a plague survivor, an elderly Green Brother quite attuned to Grass’s ecosystem, and Sylvan bon Damfels, a striking young aristocrat who’s fallen for Marjorie. Thrust into this chaos, Marjorie often has her doubts, questioning her role in her family, her relationship with Rigo, and in several long sections, questions the strictures of her faith. Yet despite all adversity, she proves a capable and competent heroine, unraveling the planet’s deep mysteries.

Tepper’s writing is pretty good; she has flashes of sublime imagery, and can evoke pure dread in the early sections dealing with the Hippae. Tepper reminds me of CJ Cherryh from her mix of sociopolitical intrigue, alien culture and biology, and good old-fashioned thrills, along with some social commentary. With Grass, that commentary is mostly on religious and moral grounds – it’s clear Tepper has no love for extremists (as Sanctity shows), but Marjorie and her “Old Catholic” family offers up a fairly balanced religious dialogue, a rare sight in SF. Tepper’s plotting is strong, too; the first half of the novel moves at a slower pace, introducing the many characters and subplots and foreshadowing what’s to come. The novel’s pacing picks up around the middle, and the final third of the novel sees all the plots and subplots crash together. Covering all of them is a futile effort; suffice to say that even when it’s slow-going, the book is packed.

While a strong novel, Grass is not immaculate; the plague is a nice macguffin, but both it and the planet’s surprise biology end up suffering from a lack of believable science. There’s also a distinct feel that Tepper was making things up as she went along, as some of the twists feel neither plotted or natural: Rigo first appears as an intense but loving husband, until suddenly he has a secret mistress, who (later) Marjorie suddenly knew about all along, and Rigo descends to become a cartoonish caricature of a domineering patriarch. In another case, Sylvan bon Damfels shows up at the commoner town and is annoyed that the commoners ignore him and treat him as useless, and suddenly it’s as if his life-long desire has been to be welcomed by the common folk. The ending is rushed and lacks impact, some elements are too stereotypical, and several of the characters (Sylvan, for one) remain underdeveloped. And some readers may chafe against the religious and moral philosophizing.

Overall, though, I found Grass a fascinating read. It balances social, religious, and scientific ideas in a novel rich with intrigue and action and a dash of horror. Combined with the stellar world-building, Tepper impressed me with her storytelling, weaving a complex narrative with dozens of characters and a multi-layered plot; even if it’s wrapped up too neatly, it’s an impressive effort. Grass has its flaws and imperfections but it also does so many things right, and I have a hard time being too critical. What Tepper has written is a very ambitious novel; like most ambitious novels, there’s that whole “reach exceeds grasp” thing, but what is grasped is more than enough to make Grass successful. I’d recommend it to most SF readers as a worthwhile read, provided they don’t immediately flee from its religion or ecofeminism.

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

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by admiral ironbombs

I knew Wilhelm was the wife of famed editor-critic Damon Knight, I’ve seen other SF bloggers write glowing praise for her novels, and I’ve enjoyed a few of her short fiction in the not too distant past. But I’m actually more familiar with her work as a mystery writer – her début novel More Bitter Than Death was a mystery, as were most of the novels she’s written since the 1980s. Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is her most famous entry, winning a clutch of awards and earning nominations for several others upon release, so I decided it would be a good place to start.

As ecological catastrophe looms, David Sumner’s family takes humanity’s last gamble: in an attempt to preserve the human race in the face of global sterility, the Sumner clan holes up in a hospital-laboratory complex to clone a new generation. This proves to be something of a success with unintended consequences: only the first four clone generations are fertile. And worse, the clones seem to have different ideas than their human creators in how this new human race should grow: genetic diversity is not seen as a benefit but a hindrance. The same goes for diversity in individuals – the clones exist as a collective, where free thought and creativity are unheard of. The narrative jumps forward to follow a clone named Molly on a voyage to explore the ruins of Washington DC. On that trip, the clones make a discovery that will change the very fabric of their being – sowing seeds that come to fruition with the third point-of-view character, Molly’s son Mark, as he changes the clones’ society forever.

The novel examines the relationship between society, community and individual, and those themes form the backbone of the novel. The clones establish a society that follows their comprehension and belief for how this new humanity should be structured—alterations due to the ESP-like ability where batches of clones share emotions and feelings, an empathic link to other clones from the same genetic source. This causes them to form a collective society as individualism is beyond their comprehension; since everything they do and feel is shared within the group, isolation becomes akin to torture, and individuality is a frightening heresy. They are not selfish or petty, acting in the community’s best interest, but can enact great cruelties of compassion – they take great pains to keep the humans and fellow clones alive, but retain many of their fertile members as little more than breeding stock for artificial insemination, hoping to create an army of young clones to reclaim the cities of New England.

David realizes what he and his family have created is not humanity’s salvation but its replacement, though his attempts to alter the clones’ course fail; instead, it’s the great trauma that Molly faces that triggers a new awakening within the clone society. The clones become worried as she develops latent traits of individuality, thought long-lost and dormant by the clone leadership. And her son, Mark – the product of sexual/biological reproduction – lives on the fringe of their society. Learning from Molly and old books, he has traits that the community needs: the ability to survive and explore out in the wilderness, as the other clones grow terrified under the solemn trees. Mark is creative and self-sufficient, but he cannot exist on his own – without a community, without heirs, leaving the clone society will make him an evolutionary dead-end. He even tries to connect with the clones and breeders, looking for someone who can understand and befriend him, to no avail. His alien individuality and childish pranks make him into a danger to the collective’s way of life, and creates a tenuous link between the two groups: each finds the other incomprehensible, but both have something the other needs.

At one level, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang might be read as an allegory for libertarianism, railing against communism or “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” conformity, an overtly simplistic black-and-white comparison where the individual is good and the community is bad. If that was the author’s intent, I didn’t see it as that stark of a good-bad contrast. The clones and their society have serious flaws, and with each new generation it gets worse – with each successive generation, the clones lose more of their creativity and individuality. They are blind to their flaws, unable to see what they are missing for their lack of it, and many of them are presented in a humane way despite their limitations. And while Mark could escape the collective at any time, without a community of his own nothing will change, and nothing he’s learned would carry on to a new generation. The book investigates some prescient issues – what is the relationship of the individual to the community? How do the individual and collective interact, when both have something the other needs yet cannot comprehend? Can one person change the workings of an entire society?

I’m well acquainted other pastoral post-apocalyptic novels – The Long Tomorrow, Greybeard, City and other Simak stories – but I think Wilhelm pens it better than anyone else. Her prose sways gently like grass under a warm summer breeze, with a compelling elegance and a rich texture. She has an incredible ability to create fully realized and sympathetic characters, making them into living, breathing people who spring off the page. And this prose is underlined by raw power – emotion that pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize the novel as faulty science, finding many of the “clone society” ideas to be implausible. Let’s leave aside the fact that David’s family were not trained scientists and didn’t have time to perfect their cloning methodology, which seems a plausible enough reason to me. I think those criticisms overlook what the novel is saying – Wilhelm wrote a potent allegory with much pathos, a parable that investigates key elements of human society. This is a classic of Soft SF – a book about people and culture – not a textbook for how to clone a living organism.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gripping novel that clings to your soul, a skillful and thought-provoking read written in beautiful prose. Her pastoral eco-apocalypse and clone society are rich in detail that gives great insight into the roles of the individual and the collective. While others may criticize the book’s science, I found the story near to perfection and give it a high recommendation. Wilhelm writes with impressive emotion and power in her work; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not only one of the most heartfelt SF books I’ve ever read, it also digs into some truths of the human condition with ringing authenticity. If you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic novel, or if you want a brilliant examination of family and the individual, or if you dislike SF because you think it is only about cold and detached science, read this book. Despite winning the Hugo and Locus, I don’t think this book gets the recognition it deserves, and every SF reader should consider reading it.

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

The Feminine Future, Mike Ashley

feminine-futureThe Feminine Future, Mike Ashley (2015)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Mike Ashley’s had an impressive career in science fiction as an editor and anthologist, from writing the four-volume History of the Science Fiction Magazine in the 1970s to editing the Mammoth Book of anthology series today. It seems he and I share some of the same values based on his introduction; he puts forth two popular genre misconceptions that this volume hopes to correct. First, that science fiction is a genre of just fanciful adventure stories, with its bug-eyed monsters and super-scientists jaunting across space and time. And second, that women writing science fiction is a newer development. Indeed, if you judge science fiction by the average “best-of” list and SF reader’s expectations, Ursula Le Guin was one of the first women to write in the genre. The Feminine Future collects fourteen science fiction stories by women writers, all of them written before the term “science fiction” was coined—even predating Gernsback’s ye olde “scientifiction.” These stories fall across the era of proto-SF, from contemporaries to Verne’s and Wells’ scientific romances all the way to early pulp SF tales in the ’20s and ’30s.

‘When Time Turned’, Ethel Watts Mumford (1902). Our unnamed protagonist arrives at the house of a friend who happens to be a doctor, and meets the doctor’s newest patient: a strange case that began with the passing of the man’s wife, at which point he realized time was flowing in reverse. He re-lived his marriage, then his engagement, and now is suffering through his bachelorhood. A sad case of neurological disorder brought on by trauma – or is it? An interesting story that predates The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by twenty years, and uses a similar reverse-aging theme. The writing style and frame structure – visiting a friend, hearing this man’s life story retold – is very dated though, and while I like the idea, I feel the second story would be a better start to the collection.

‘The Painter of Dead Women’, Edna W Underwood (1911). Rushing to meet her husband at a regal ball in Naples, our Englishwoman protagonist instead finds herself at arriving at the wrong address – trapped by the mysterious Count Ponteleone, the painter of dead women. Ponteleone is behind the abduction of several local women who he uses as subjects for his paintings, injecting them with a rare chemical concoction that leads to a fate worse than death – the body’s beauty is preserved in immobility, while the brain continues to function… A gripping story with strong horror themes: the body horror element, losing control of one’s self, and a perverse and intrusive (male) villain, combined with the nightmare of living through every minute of the process. Crisp writing and constant tension make it a brisk read. It’s my first favorite of the collection.

‘The Automaton Ear’, Florence McLandburgh (1873). The protagonist, upon realizing that sounds do not diminish but instead fade into the background noise of Earth, develops a remarkable hearing machine that allows him to hear echoes of the past – he hears everything, from biblical stories as they happened through to the suffering of starving children in a more recent era. This story felt more like other early SF stories of the time with its inventive idea, but takes a dark turn when the protagonist becomes obsessed with his creation, and his decision to test this invention on a deaf woman – to see if it can cure her illness – proves his undoing. While the science is questionable, the central idea combines brilliant creativity with the same engineering and scientific principles of later works.

‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, Elizabeth Bellamy (1900). In contrast to the earlier, darker stories, this is a lighthearted piece about a household receiving two robots Automatic Household Beneficent Geniuses from an inventor friend. Having gone through several maids and servants who were unable to perform their cooking and cleaning duties to the family’s satisfaction, the hope is that these machines will become capable replacements – until it becomes obvious that the settings dials for these machines require much precision, and need some fine-tuning (as well as some kind of childproofing). A comedic story as the machines run rampant and fight over a broom; I have to assume it was a light jab at the idea of machines replacing human workers, à la The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

‘The Ray of Displacement’, Harriet Prescott Spofford (1903). Our protagonist has discovered a ray that changes molecular structure enough that its users are able to pass through walls and become invisible, but after a mix-up involving a diamond, greedy Judge Brant has the protagonist jailed. Still polarized, the protagonist sets forth to clear his name and earn a legal exit from jail, while getting even with the mean-spirited Judge. The tale gains a supernatural element after a failed suicide attempt that becomes important to the finale. This story felt about thirty years ahead of its time, as its scientific thought-experiment and remarkable gadget would have been right at home in issues of Amazing Stories. The story itself is a bit stilted, and oddly starts well after the scientific discovery, but is a very interesting take on an idea that was uncommon in SF at the time.

‘Those Fatal Filaments’, Mabel Ernestine Abbott (1903). An electrician creates a device which allows its user to read the thoughts of others – though, as he finds out, it isn’t discerning on what or whose thoughts it receives. An interesting if slight piece from a relatively unknown author who wrote quite a bit of fiction for early 20th-century magazines. The question this story poses is one that pulp science fiction would frequently return to: what is a brilliant idea for some kind of future machine, and what kind of impact would its creation have on society?

‘The Third Drug’, Edith Nesbit (1908). Wandering Paris at night, Roger Wroxham is assaulted and wounded by brigands; in an effort to escape, he jumps into an open house and barricades the door. Inside, he finds his salvation may be his undoing – the inhabitant is a mad scientist who plays god with pharmaceuticals, who wants to test his latest creation on Roger… Shades of Frankenstein and the gothics of old, replacing the alchemist with a more scientific (and realistic) chemist who’s developed a kind of super-serum drug. The semi-scientific idea is bolstered by some good tense atmosphere, and the story has a bit more action than some of the other recent stories.

‘A Divided Republic’, Lillie Devereux Blake (1887). Subtitled “An Allegory of the Future,” this story is rooted in the future-history as a metaphor, in the same vein as Bellamy’s Looking Backward and similar. Growing disillusion on behalf of womens’ rights advocates and suffragettes leads to American woman emigrating en masse to the Western territories of Washington and the adjoining flyover country to its east. There they set up their own society, where women take the roles of architects and lawmakers, building beautiful shining cities. Meanwhile the menfolk fall victim to alcoholism and bad manners, as they remain unshaven and their houses fall into disarray. A bit heavy-handed in its allegory, stilted in its writing, and lacking in characters. But as a feminist utopia it crafts a bold and vivid idea for its time.

‘Via the Hewitt Ray’, MF Rupert (1930). Another feminist utopia, though perhaps a bit more relatable for us unshaven menfolk as it’s a swashbuckling yarn from Science Wonder Quarterly. Hotshot pilot Lucille Hewitt receives a letter from her father, explaining that he’s crossed dimensions using a light-wave device of his own creation. Desperate to save him, Lucille straps on her Colt .45 and follows in pursuit. Inside, she finds creatures of three evolutionary planes: strange humanoid-alien monsters; a race of cold, distant women who have created a feminist society and keep their men in harems; and a third race which has captured Father Hewitt. The story could easily have been written by another Gernsback writer like Stanton Coblentz or David Keller, balancing Lucille’s exploration of the alien society (eg, a satire/contrast of contemporary society) with some derring-do adventure… if it wasn’t for the heroine protagonist – only the second so far in this volume! – and the brilliantly creative society Lucille finds inside the Hewitt ray. While it’s pulp to the core and a bit rushed, this is perhaps my favorite tale from this collection.

‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, Clotide Graves (1917). In the aftermath of the Boer War, rumors of a great reptilian beast begin to circulate in southern Africa. One old hunter knows about the beast, having seen it before – he retells the experience to his son. As a monster story featuring some relic dinosaur, it’s rich in atmosphere, and in terms of writing it’s the best story in the collection. Graves had an excellent feel for her setting, having written several popular novels set during the Boer War; for its time, this is one of the more authentic-feeling Africa stories this side of H. Rider Haggard. An excellent story with a deep if subtle message about empathizing with emotional loss.

‘Friend Island’, Francis Stevens (1918). Francis Stevens was the only author of this collection familiar to me, known as the first woman to regularly write SF for the pulp magazines. She’s known for her vivid imagination, and this story doesn’t disappoint on that front. The setting is a world where woman have replaced men as the “superior” gender, and our male protagonist speaks with a salty old woman of adventure who found herself shipwrecked. The feminist future is a minor point compared to the floating island, which empathizes with our castaway and reacts according to her mood. As for the previous castaway, one of the last adventurous males, let’s just say his time on the island was less than pleasant. Solid writing backs up impressive creativity.

‘The Artificial Man’, Clare Winger Harris (1929). After a football injury cripples George Gregory, he undergoes a theoretical surgery to gain an artificial leg. But he doesn’t stop there, and after a series of other accidents, he finds himself more machine than man – while the terminology wasn’t invented yet, he’s one of the genre’s first examples of the cyborg. And he wants his college sweetheart, who’s apprehensive at how all these artificial limbs and organs have changed George. The writing is very dry, and the plot is a simple love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cyborg, that examines the boundaries between physical perfection and honest virtue/morals. Not one of my favorites, but it raises some very poignant questions.

‘Creatures of the Light’, Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1930). Our protagonist runs into a German scientist who’s working to perfect the human race, manufacturing his own society of clones out in the Antarctic thanks to his wonder devices. As our hero falls head-over-heels for one of the clones, he runs afoul of another who’s smitten with the woman: Adam, the first clone, out to destroy humanity and claim this world for himself. Another take on the theme of physical perfection versus morality and virtue; history has not been kind to eugenics, so the theme of cloning a “perfect” race of humans is off-putting. The story displays a wealth of unique ideas, but the wooden characters and eugenics-heavy plot left me cold.

‘The Flying Teuton’, Alice Brown (1917). As the name indicates, a take on the Flying Dutchman legend of old. In the aftermath of World War One – written at a time when that was also science fiction – peaceful commerce resumes, and merchant ships ply the oceans. One passenger, an American reporter heading back to New York, rides the first German trade ship to attempt the journey… running into a fleet of ghost ships along the way. An eerie story that’s also quite prescient, with the world showing sympathy for the Germans a year before Versailles, due to the strange coincidences they found themselves in with the ghost fleet.

The stories in this volume deal with the same themes that early science fiction would investigate over and over again: many of them follow the same pattern of “introduce a creative scientific idea and examine its effects on society/its users”. The difference is most of these stories were written decades before Hugo Gernsback named it “scientifiction” and proved there was enough of a market for this type of material to support monthly pulp magazines. Other stories take even more inventive approaches, dealing with ideas and concepts that are still original and fresh today. Some reflect issues of their day, reacting to Woman’s Suffrage, or impacted by The Boer War or World War One. Mike Ashley should be commended for finding these gems which were overlooked for so long; that they include such a variety of themes and styles is impressive.

As with all collections, this is a mixed bag, and not every story will appeal to every reader. That’s precisely why I like it: this book shows how diverse science fiction was even in its earlier days. It covers the breadth of the early genre from adventure stories (‘Via the Hewitt Ray’), to stories that blend horror and science (‘Painter of Dead Women’, ‘The Third Drug’), to feminist utopias (‘Divided Republic’ and ‘Hewitt Ray’) or wild invention stories (‘Automaton Ear’, ‘Automatic Housemaid’, ‘Fatal Filaments’, etc). Some of the stories are similar in theme or feel, but all of them are unique, different takes on the same concept of scientific invention and discovery changing the world. In some cases it’s for the better, in others for the worse, and in a few it’s good old fashioned comedy. My favorites lean towards adventure and the macabre, and include ‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, ‘Via The Hewitt Ray’, ‘Friend Island’, ‘The Painter of Dead Women’, ‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, and ‘The Third Drug’.

Readers not as familiar with pre-modernist literature may be put off by some of the artistic preferences of the age, like the awkward framing device in ‘When Time Turned’, or the distant and passive prose in ‘A Divided Republic’. I cut my teeth reading Wells, Verne, and Haggard, and still found some of the stories a bit dry and plodding for my taste. And the individual pieces have not always withstood the passage of time. But for anyone with a serious interest in science fiction’s history and origins, and those readers fascinated by genre gender studies, this slim volume fills an important gap in SF’s history. (What’s worse is that many readers remain unaware such a void exists.) It addresses shortcomings in perception and misconception that the average reader may have regarding early SF and the women who wrote it. The Feminine Future amounts to more than the sum of its parts: it’s a piece of science fiction history that is often overlooked by most fans, a rich sample from an esoteric and overlooked niche. And I give it a high recommendation because of that.

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

Mister Justice, Doris Piserchia

mr_justiceMister Justice, Doris Piserchia (1973)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Science Fiction’s “New Wave” – the more experimental period in the late-’60s, early-’70s – is full of now-forgotten authors, such as Doris Piserchia. Piserchia’s career took a while to blossom: while her first short-story, ‘Rocket to Gehenna’, was first printed in 1966, her writing career didn’t really get started until 1973. That was when she wrote her first novel, Mister Justice; after that, her career took off. In the space of ten years she wrote thirteen novels, most of them science fiction paperback originals for DAW Books. Her works saw her associated with the US New Wave; two of her later novels were horror, under the pseudonym Curt Selby. And her exit from the genre was as spontaneous as her entrance: her last book was released in 1983, and that was all – she never wrote another SF piece again.

In an America where the justice system seems to be breaking down, a time-travelling vigilante going by the name Mister Justice is striking at criminals: after photographing their crimes in the past, he arrives in the future to enact revenge. Most criminals meet the same fate as their victims, but after a plea from the President, they are found in front of police stations bound and gagged and loaded down with incriminating evidence. The authorities cannot allow this spate of vigilantism to continue, and a triumvirate of Secret Service agents take young supergenius Daniel Jordan and train him to catch Mister Justice – conscripting a superboy to take on a superman. Meanwhile, one criminal seems to escape Mister Justice’s best efforts, a kingpin named Arthur Bingle, another time-traveller who’s begun to take over the world.

That sounds like a very neat plot structure, but the novel has a number of entwined subplots. Daniel’s training begins at a special school for eccentric geniuses, where he falls into a romance with Pala, an eleven-year-old Swiss orphan. (Shades of van Vogt’s supermen mixed with Heinlein’s inappropriate romances.) Pala is kidnapped during Daniel’s investigation, which throws him into despair. Later in the book, the focus is on Bingle and his cronies as they consolidate power; the government and police have collapsed into little more than licensed brigands, and Bingle’s army of “Numbers” make their move. It’s not clear whether society was already collapsing when Mister Justice began punishing criminals, or if he was part of the tipping point that caused a loss of faith in the justice system; that said, it wasn’t in that great a shape to begin with, when Mister Justice exposes the vice president as a criminal that the justice department has no interest in prosecuting.

The prose style is… unique? Parts of it are very dry and pulpy, simple “He did this. He thought that.” sentences. They become a chore when ten of them are stacked together to form a paragraph. (This is very true for the first chapter and early parts of chapter two; if you bear with it, the writing does improve.) Other times, the prose has a murky, dreamlike quality to it, snippets of greater brilliance that build later in the novel. The characters speak in oblique dialogue, and while it’s easy to piece together their meaning at times, I always felt like there was more going on than the story was willing to tell me. The structure, on the other hand, is always a hot mess. Piserchia has odd preferences for structure and appears to despise paragraph breaks; at one point, between one connected sentence and another is an unannounced time jump of some six years. Some of this can be construed as New Wave experimentation, and with some patience and attention to detail most things are obvious even if they were not spelled out. But it makes the novel a challenging read when the book itself actively works against the reader.

I’ve seen several people refer to Mister Justice as Piserchia’s best novel, which leaves me very apprehensive: I have five more of her books, and if this one is the best I can’t imagine how the others are. Her imagination is beyond brilliant, and the plot is full of excellent elements – the premise is great, many of its plot-threads are full of potential, and with a little work it could have been a New Wave classic of crime and punishment, or a surreal homage to the pulps. It’s a remarkable book. But Mister Justice felt like a novel condensed into a novella, leaving valuable context on the cutting room floor. It’s almost too spontaneous and subtle for a casual read, and won’t go over well with readers expecting traditional structure and coherence, but it could satiate fans looking for a stylistic New Wave SF deep cut that most will overlook. There’s enough positive reviews on the Doris Piserchia website to tell me it does have its fans.

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

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

parable-of-the-sower3Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
Review by admiral ironbombs

“God, I hate this place.

I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough.”

As often as she appears on “best SF authors you ought to read”-type lists, I get the feeling that Octavia Butler is not half as well-known as she ought to be. (Probably a perception issue on my part due to her showing up on all those “authors you’ve never read but should” lists… and because I think everyone should have read at least one of her books by now.) It’s a surprise to me; despite any flaws and quibbles with her novels, they’re some of the most thought-provoking and innovative SF out there. I’ve meant to re-read her Patternist and Xenogenesis series, but before doing so, there was one series of hers I’ve yet to read: Earthseed. It started with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and continued in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, and would have continued with Parable of the Trickster if Butler’s writing career hadn’t been cut short at the age of 58.

Lauren Olamina grew up in the mid-2020s, watching the world deteriorate from the relative safety of her middle-class gated community outside of Los Angeles. Due to catastrophic climate and social change, society is coming apart at the seams. The new presidential administration has cut back investments in the sciences, and removed labor and safety regulations, in an attempt to “restore America to its former glory.” Police show up hours late, if at all, and cost too much for most citizens to use them. The firemen rarely show up at all – there isn’t enough potable water for drinking, so wasting it to put out fires costs an egregious sum. And there are plenty of fires from a new wunderdrug, said to make watching (and setting) fires “more enjoyable than sex” for its users. (Lauren’s addict mother took yet another substance while pregnant, which gave Lauren “hyperempathy,” a kind of mental link where Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of others.) And Lauren sees the first foreign corporations buying up American cities: “company towns” where the wealthy live in safety and security, and others can trade their labor for the privilege of living behind their sturdy walls.

This gated cul-de-sac has become the only family and world Lauren has known, a safe zone nestled in the anarchy, and its inhabitants soldier on against increasing adversity. Things are bad and are only getting worse, but the adults refuse to accept this societal decay as anything other than a temporary setback. Even Lauren’s father – a Baptist preacher and the community’s leader – is reluctant to admit the dark reality of everyday life. But thieves and arsonists keep breaking in; the deaths mount, as do the number of families leaving to work in corporate cities. Laruen’s family begins to collapse; after the community shatters from a series of attacks, Lauren heads forth from the wreckage with a multi-racial cast, reborn through change with new purpose: that of Earthseed.

Earthseed itself is hard to explain; it’s a religion Lauren builds as she struggles to understand it, a new God – a new philosophy – to help understand and guide her through this world. It’s both her construct and an outside force that motivates her. It’s a series of poetic verses which headline each chapter, the meaning of which builds as you progress through the novel. This recurring refrain is both explanation and teaser for the depth of Earthseed: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars.” Earthseed is the crux of the novel, somewhat ironic given that it’s given second billing behind the apocalyptic setting and atmosphere. I’m a bit of an agnostic skeptic myself, and found Earthseed too ’90s New Age-y at times, even though Butler handles the subject with a gentle but firm hand. Aside from bringing manifest destiny to the stars, it’s a reaction to the only world Lauren has known, a religion that promotes tolerance and understanding to bind together the remains of a human race fractured along geopolitical, ethnic, and class lines. It raises a fascinating concept: what would the idealistic philosophy of this grim future be?

And it is one grim future, festering in the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe – Butler is coy with details on how this world messed itself up, perhaps because the narrator herself is coming of age well after the decline started. Prepare for dogs running around with children’s limbs dangling from their mouths, teenage cannibalism, and a depressing amount of background rape (several of the characters in Lauren’s band are former sex slaves). Butler has a very cynical view of humankind, portraying it as willing to destroy itself and spoil its environment in a frantic scramble for self-preservation; her 2026 California is as brutal as Earthseed is optimistic. There’s this rich, intoxicating atmosphere of decay that pervades the novel, humanity clinging to the last vestiges of society. It’s shocking how vivid and plausible this future can feel, a nightmare vision extrapolated from our worst predictions for climate change and income inequality. Yet it also had elements that don’t feel at all realistic – things I wouldn’t hesitate to take a lesser writer to task over. It hasn’t rained in six years, but everyone has thriving citrus/vegetable gardens. In one or two generations, dogs have gone from loyal companion to roving in packs eating children. Society is all but gone, but people still go to work and get paid; everyone is scraping by without enough food and water, but Lauren’s group never lacks supplies since every fifty pages there’s a guy selling food out of the back of a truck. I could go on.

Truth be told, I found myself drawn into this novel, warts and all. I think the epistolary style works against the novel – it’s composed of diary entries written by a confused teenager, but it gives the reader an inside view of Lauren’s thought process. The aforementioned plot holes were nits I couldn’t help but pick. The narrative is distant and detached, as Lauren builds – finds? – her religion and explains it through emotionless journal entries. And the ending doesn’t give finality or closure, as this novel is just a few steps of the journey of Earthseed. Butler had a grand vision for the series, following in the wake of Lauren as humanity’s new messiah; Parable of the Sower is just the first step on a long, six-book journey that ended two books in. There’s a good article on the LA Review of Books that charts the intended progression, and makes me wonder how amazing the full cycle would have been had Butler been around to complete it.

Parable of the Sower tackles complex issues in a rich and disturbing apocalypse, a world that felt more real due to its detailed and diverse cast. While some elements were vivid and realistic, others are awkward and poorly thought out, and the author’s cynical view of humanity is a downer – with enough cannibalism, rape, and so forth to probably deserve a trigger warning. Still, I couldn’t put it down – I found it well-written and very readable; Butler has a strong, sure voice as a writer, and uses it to her full advantage as Lauren founds a new religion for all humankind. Parable of the Sower doesn’t rise to the same heights as Wild Seed or Kindred, but it offers some thought-provoking insight into religion, gender, and race in the dystopic remnants of society. I just wish Butler had been around to complete this series.

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

The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett

sinharatThe 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.

A Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman

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.

Kindred, Octavia E Butler

kindredKindred, Octavia E Butler (1979)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Octavia Butler overcame dyslexia to become one of the most noteworthy science fiction authors of the late 20th Century. Her science fiction explores themes of race, sex, power, religion, and other key cornerstones to the human condition. The shocking suddenness of her passing in 2006 left a void that has yet to be filled, cutting several of her series short. Aside from her numerous short stories, most of Butler’s novels were in her Patternist, Xenogenesis, or Parable series, with two exceptions. Kindred is one of those, a stand-alone novel written as a reaction and exploration of slavery; it feels like Butler’s series can overshadow her other work, and Kindred being a genre-bender I don’t think it’s gotten the recognition it deserves.

Dana is a modern black woman living in 1970s California with her white husband Kevin, two struggling authors trying to break into publishing while making ends meet. The trouble begins when Dana slips out of her house and onto a wooded riverbank, just in time to save a young boy- Rufus Waylin – from drowning. As she slips back into her own home, Kevin informs her only a few seconds have passed – her clothes are soaked, her shoes caked in mud. This is real. Painfully real, as she slips in time and space again and begins to understand her situation. Dana soon realizes she’s being drawn to save Rufus whenever he’s in danger, pulled back into antebellum Maryland where Rufus is the son of a slave owner, and – to Dana’s horror – he’s one of her great-ancestors, progenitor of her family line.

Dana may be an enlightened 20th-century woman, and she may not wear physical shackles, but she’s still very much enslaved – bonded as Rufus’ savior across space and time. Whenever Rufus is in danger, Dana will arrive to save him, and she lives in fear of her next transportation. The psychological toll is so heavy that she becomes a hermit in her own time, too afraid to drive in case she’s pulled out of a moving car, too scared to leave her house for fear of pulling someone else back into the past. Her friends and relatives see her wounds and assume Kevin is abusive – see, they imply, what you get for marrying a white man? Reading this novel today, even the 1970s feel like another era, with familial tensions over Dana and Kevin’s mixed marriage. And things only get worse when Kevin is pulled back into the past, then accidentally abandoned; the already sizable age gap between Dana and Kevin grows, and his perception changes after spending half a decade in the 1820s.

Kindred is a hard book to read; it deals with the darkest stain in American history, a systemic injustice that remains uncomfortably difficult to discuss, despite feeling its after-effects to this day. Butler, through Dana, makes comparisons with the Nazis: instead of industrialized extermination, it’s the barbarism of torture and subjugation – treating human beings as animals, as property – and Dana experiences plenty of that first-hand. It’s not just the torture, but the psychological impact of slavery – how easy it is to live in fear, to fall into the mindset of a slave – that makes things a complex psychological hell. Add to that one of the many meanings of the title: at its most literal, the genealogical link between Dana, Rufus, and the freewoman-turned-slave Alice. To ensure her existence, Dana needs Rufus and Alice to create her ancestral line – but she must walk an ethically fine line, disgusted by Rufus and unwilling to force Alice into a relationship she has no interest in.

And as hard a book it is to read I have to imagine it was an even harder book to write. Butler wrote the novel as a way to let readers feel what it meant to be a black woman slave and the first-person perspective echoes the fear and uncertainty, the feelings of utter powerlessness. Dana is not completely powerless, and as Rufus becomes more a product of his time – more ruthless, less humane to his slaves – she uses his vulnerabilities as leverage, letting him know his life is in her hands. The other slaves we get to know lack any sort of leverage, save for Alice, who also challenges the master-slave power dynamic in her own way. By the end of the book, Alice and Dana will take actions to reject the subaltern roles Rufus allotted them.

Kindred is the kind of science fiction novel that sits astride the genre line; my copy has an afterword that claims the novel is not science fiction, instead focusing on the neo-slave narrative in its analysis. I disagree, because this is the kind of SF book you should give to readers who “don’t like SF” – a deep, insightful, and powerful novel that speaks across time and space to make complex themes understandable and relatable. The best kind of science fiction isn’t about building better robots or the adherence to stricter, more rigorous physics. No, like Kindred, the best science fiction uses fantastical elements to explore and speculate about complex ideas and themes. It’s a book everyone should read, SF fan or not, just to experience its raw power.

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

Rocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin

rocannonsworldRocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin (1966)
Review by admiral ironbombs

They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb ‘to be unable.’ There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.

I was surprised to find out that Ursula K Le Guin’s first published novel was an Ace Double, paired with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign. Much like Davidson’s half, Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World is more science fantasy than science fiction, a sword-and-planet romp that includes many of the tropes we now associate with high fantasy literature. Yet it still fits into her Hainish Cycle, a body of works that includes her award winners The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. It sprung from ‘Semley’s Necklace’, a short in a 1964 issue of Amazing that became the prologue to Rocannon’s World. It’s a good introduction because, reading it, you dive into the exotic yet familiar world of Le Guin’s creation where “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (to quote Clarke).

An ethnologist working for the League of All Worlds, Rocannon’s survey mission to the planet Fomalhaut II went smoothly… until an unknown adversary destroyed his spaceship from orbit, killing his companions. Stranded on this primitive alien planet, Rocannon sets out to track down the base of this enemy somewhere on the other side of the planet, in hopes that he can get to their ‘ansible’ – a device which can send communications at FTL speeds – so he can warn the League. Coming with him is the local feudal lord Mogien and his men-at-arms; riding cat-horse hybrids called windsteeds, the small group must travel through perilous, unmapped continents to reach the enemy encampment. And once there, what good are Bronze Age-level weapons against lasers and attack helicopters? These are near-insurmountable odds, but Rocannon will not let his companions’ deaths go unpunished; he may lose that which he values most, but Rocannon will stop these aggressors…

Rocannon’s World falls into the sub-genre of sword-and-planet that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, among others, carved out in the pulps: an Earthman of the future finds himself stranded on a primitive (Bronze/Iron Age) planet, forced to trek in search of some goal on the other side of the world, finding strange creatures and customs – and plenty of adventure – along the way. As such, it has a lot of the tropes of a fantasy novel: swordfights and magic (psychic) powers and strange beasts, with a science fiction twist. For example, the “dwarf” equivalents recieved cultural advancement in the form of Industrial Age technology from the League of All Worlds, until Rocannon’s recommendations put a stop to it. Purists may be dissatisfied by the lack of hard science or traditional science fiction themes; all others will probably be too distracted by the adventure and rich-world building to care.

Said worldbuilding and alien cultures are where the book feels most like Le Guin. The daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin’s works are less focused on the “hard” sciences and more on the “soft” ones – anthropology, sociology, and psychology in particular. There’s an array of species living on Fomalhaut II, each with their own distinct culture and society painted in broad strokes – the strange caste system between the humanoid species, the half-sized humanoids with latent telepathy, the strange race of insectoid builders both blind and deaf. The prose also felt like pure Le Guin; a bit rough perhaps, but it has her cleverness and flow. See this segment about Rocannon, going under the name Olhor (“wanderer”), with cryptic references to the novel’s elements:

The little Name-Eaters, the Kiemhrir, these are in old songs we sing from mind to mind, but not the Winged Ones. The friends, but not the enemies. The sunlight, not the dark. And I am companion of Olhor who goes southward into the legends, bearing no sword. I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness. I am only a half-person. I cannot go farther than the hills. I cannot go into the high places with you, Olhor!

Le Guin’s writing evokes the fantastic and the wonder of this world; romanticized but not cloying or sappy, flowing like a rich tapestry yet never over-wrought or over-written. It bounds along full of energy, a fast-paced novel that kept me invigorated until its stunning conclusion. The finale is a series of wicked twists, defying my expectations and adding emotional weight to the story. “And I wish never to again be where I might hear the voices of my enemies…” becomes a powerful conclusion, a reference not to what has been lost but what he gained during his journey.

And a few comments on ‘Semley’s Jewel’, the short story turned prologue, in which princess Semley sets out to get a family heirloom back. To do so, she needs help from the subterranean, dwarf-like Gdemiar, whose technology was advanced to the Industrial Age… and who were gifted a small starship which can visit the interstellar museum where the necklace was donated. It’s science fiction seen through the lens of fantasy, and in a twist on the Rip-van-Winkle magical sleep theme, Semley’s trip across the black seas of night involves near-lightspeed time dilation, and she returns home to find years have passed. Rocannon collects the necklace during his survey trip, and while it’s referenced several times during his journey it failed to turn out to be some magical macguffin as I expected. Props to Le Guin for side-stepping that trope, though there are two more books in my omnibus version, and for all I know the necklace may be back.

Le Guin’s inauspicious début is a pretty good novel; it doesn’t stand out as a masterwork like so many of her later books, but it treads the planetary romance/sword-and-planet path without devolving into a hackneyed pastiche. The book does exactly what it says on the tin: flying cats, swords and blasters, adventure and mystery, its finale an unexpected surprise, delivered in Le Guin’s top-notch prose. In terms of planetary romance, Le Guin was no Leigh Brackett – then again, as her later novels prove, she was capable of writing far greater books than many SF writers can dream of. While it has some rough edges, Rocannon’s World does two things well: it foreshadows Le Guin’s later greatness, and tells a pretty decent SF adventure story. If you’re like me and enjoy a good planetary romance, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise, I’ll point you at the rest of Le Guin’s oeuvre and let you run wild.

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