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Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Mar 2016 cover

The second issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. Robert Silverberg describes how Walter de la Mare’s story The Three Mulla-Mulgars, read in his youth and many times since, inspired him and fed into his fiction. James Patrick Kelly’s internet overview discusses the pros and cons of reading and writing a series of books.1 In the fiction:-
The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka.2 A data cruncher who can predict scandals goes to work for a politician. Then she is contacted by the people who really run things. Another story which panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Ship Whisperer by Julie Novakova. An expedition to a black dwarf (which shouldn’t exist) discovers a device that can alter the rate of change of time. The titular character can “talk” to quantum computers, enabling the story’s resolution.
A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time by Sunil Patel is a series of listicles. I believe it is supposed to be humorous. The author seems to have a particular thing about kale.
Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace is about trends, moving elsewhere then finding the norms are different, plus there are Watcher chips inside people’s heads.
Do Not Forget Me by Ray Nayler3 is a story in the Eastern tradition, of tales within the tale – four embedded narratives here – the central one being about a man who doesn’t age. There is nothing really noteworthy here though.
A Little Bigotry by R Neube.4 An ex-soldier down on her uppers is reduced to accepting a contract to be an escort to a former enemy. A fine enough story but reminiscent of Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine. Then again, I suppose the point about enemies being worthy of understanding always bears repeating.
New Earth by James Gunn.5 A colony ship from a more-or-less destroyed Erath has reached a new planetary home. Choices and dangers must be faced.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey6 is narrated by a woman who takes home an alien who came into the Walmart she works in. This at first unpromising – clichéd even – scenario is, though, only scaffolding over what eventually becomes an affecting tale of love, loss and redemption. I note the references by Bailey – via the narrator’s surname (Sheldon,) her dead daughter Alice and her comment on her status as an invisible woman – to the career of James Tiptree Jr.

Pedant’s corner:- In the editorial; definine (define,) chose (choose,) Lawrence Watt Evans tale (Evans’s,) 1 ambiance (ambience,) 2 she could feel it siding in her fingers (sliding makes more sense,) lobyists (lobbyists,) 3 lay about (lie about.) 4 license (licence,) maw used for mouth (maw means stomach,) accurst (accursed,) 5mentions trees that are not-quite-trees but one of the characters says multi-cellular life hasn’t evolved there. Trees are multi-cellular; the fern-like structures subsequently described would be also. 6Bug-Eyes’ (it’s singular; so Bug-Eyes’s,) Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) laying (lying; plus lay for lie,) breath in (breathe in.) In Paul di Filippo’s book reviews; stefnal to mean science-fictional, a usage I had not come across before, whereas sfnal I was familiar with.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Feb 2016 cover

The first issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In his column Robert Silverberg remembers the pulp days. As to the fiction:-
The Grocer’s Wife [enhanced transcription] by Michael Libling.1 Andrew Phillips works for a government agency overseeing the mental deterioration of various subjects. His latest, a grocer named Thomas Bonner, gets to him, or rather the devotion of Bonner’s wife does. The deterioration process mimics Alzheimer’s but is induced by the government to drain the brains of its victims. Waffle about JFK and President Bush aside quite how and why the government should feel the need to do this remains obscure.
Bringing Them Back by Bruce McAllister. A man tries to bring back all the creatures lost to environmental stress and targeted viral outbreaks by drawing them onto paper. The story is complete with illustrations purporting to be these drawings. The last of them (he cannot bring himself to draw his wife) are of his children and himself.
In Equity by Sarah Gallien.2 An orphaned child goes to his latest placement interview with little hope of acceptance. His prospective adopters want him to be subject to unfettered medical trials in exchange for the best education.
Passion Summer by Nick Wolven.3 A Passion can be bought but is usually fleeting. Fourteen year-old Jeffrey decides to ask for a Passion for Passion itself.
Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen narrates the tale of a Russian scientist who detected carrier wave background noise in the Andromeda galaxy (evidence of alien radio transmissions) and the contract killer sent to silence him. The story panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Monster of 1928 by Sandra McDonald is an unexceptional fantasy tale. The monster of the title is Tulu, the legend of the Everglades, encountered one night by narrator Louise.
The Charge and the Storm by An Owomoyela.4 On a colony formed by a starship community but dominated by the alien Su a group of humans seeks independence.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 skullduggery (skulduggery,) 2 sprung (sprang,) unpixilated (pixilated means bemused or intoxicated, context suggests unpixelated,) 3 gladiolas (gladioli,) Diedre (Deirdre,) 4 missing comma before a speech quote, to not die (not to die.)

Shadow on the Stars by Robert Silverberg

In The Chalice of Death, Planet Stories, 2012, 98 p.

Shadow on the Stars cover
 Shadow on the Stars cover

This novel originally appeared as Stepsons of Terra in 1958 (see cover left – though that looks like a 1970s printing.) It was republished as Shadow on the Stars in 2000 (cover on right.)

It is typical early Silverberg, a potboiler with little in the way of characterisation. Baird Ewing has been sent from the former Earth colony world of Corwin, under threat from the Klodni, who have stormed into the Milky Way from the Andromeda Galaxy, to seek help from the mother world against the invaders. When he arrives he finds Earth is no longer a vibrant planet. It has no military and is itself about to be subjugated by humans from another ex-colony round Sirius. Very soon he is accused of spying on the Sirians and made captive but is strangely rescued when about to be mind-probed. There follows a tale of time travel and paradox wherein lies the solution to all his problems.

For Silverberg completists only.

Pedant’s corner:- “I’m a stabilized orbit” (I’m in a stabilized orbit,) sprung (sprang is used later!!) “showed seemingly, genuine confusion” (no comma, or an extra one before seemingly,) Mellis’ (Mellis’s,) “the past three of four days” (three or four,) a missing full stop, “felt the transition from now minus three microseconds (as I understood it, it would have been now plus three microseconds,) insure (ensure.) A “time interval later” count of 8.
At one point Baird goes back in time and looks at his watch; which now shows a time earlier than when he left. A mechanical or electrically driven watch could not possibly do this. The only way it could happen would be if the watch were set (and updated) remotely, say by microwave. There was no mention of the watch working via such an external signal.

David Mitchell and Ursula Le Guin

David Mitchell (for my reviews of whose Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet click on the links) has written an article very appreciative of Ursula Le Guin and published in Saturday’s Guardian. It seems it was Le Guin who inspired Mitchell to become a writer.

Well, there’s always someone to blame. In my case it was Robert Silverberg; but Le Guin came a close second – and that only because I came to her later.

Mitchell puts Le Guin’s Earthsea in the Fantasy world’s super league along with Tolkein and now George RR Martin. He argues Earthsea is a superior creation to Middle Earth. Since I never managed to get past book one of Lord of the Rings (probably because I came to it in my late rather than early teens) I would have to concur.

Though Mitchell doesn’t actually rank them against each other I would also place Earthsea above Martin’s Westeros since that world is too focused on violence and its source material is more obvious. Le Guin’s seems to have sprung out of her own imagination and experiences.

The first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence has apparently now been given a Folio Society edition.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Jun 2015

Dell Magazines.

Asimov's Jun 2015 cover

This magazine is more weighted to fiction than Analog though there are non-fiction pieces. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s guest editorial describes SF as a literature that asks Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? – thus adding two additional questions to the one most literature addresses – Robert Silverberg’s Reflections goes over the history of predictions of the end of the world and of apocalyptic SF while James Patrick Kelly’s On The Net: an Optimist’s Tale argues that modern day SF is not as pessimistic as some in Project Hieroglyph present.
As to the fiction, there is less cleaving of the paper light years in Asimov’s than there was in Analog, notwithstanding the first story The End of the War by Django Wexler, wherein two remnants of humanity called Minoans and Circeans fight a proxy war on derelict spaceships left over from the main battles by means of pilot-controlled salvage/manufactory devices. The opposing pilots have conversations as they fight over the remains.1 Henry Lien’s The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society has two society ladies in what seems the nineteenth century trying to find the favour of Mrs Ava Vanderbilt by means of elaborate gardens. They take it too far.2 Mutability by Ray Nayler sees a couple meet for the first time in a café – four hundred years after being photographed together. Indrapramit Das’s The Muses of Shuyedan-18 features two human women who are witnessed having sex by the huge alien of the title which reproduces them in a carving on its back.3 The titular characters in M Bennardo’s Ghosts of the Savannah are two prehistoric women hunters who don’t want to settle to a life of domesticity and child-bearing. Our Lady of the Open Road by Sarah Pinsker is the tour bus for the band Cassis Fire, who are rare hold-outs still playing real gigs in a world where entertainment has been cornered by the corporate might of StageHolo.4

Pedant’s corner:-
1 the compute power (twice!! “computing power” is so much less ugly,) to go to particular place (a particular place,) “slingshot” as the preterite of the verb (slungshot? slingshotted? But then I suppose USians use fit as a past tense,) the maze of room and corridors (this ship had corridors but only one room?)
2 hostess’ (hostess’s,) the USianism “dove” for “dived”, plus the story jumps from Chapter VII to IX with no sign of VIII.
3 chord (cord,) in a way the human brain will remind of our own architectures (will be reminded of.)
4 in the cards (on the cards.)

Starhaven by Robert Silverberg

In The Chalice of Death, Planet Stories, 2012, 90 p. First published as Starhaven, 1958, as by Ivar Jorgensen.

Starhaven cover

Another of Silverberg’s early potboilers. Here Johnny Mantell, former researcher at Klingsan Defence Systems but for seven years a beachcomber on the planet Mulciber, has to flee justice when a tourist picks a fight with him and dies. He steals a spaceship and heads for Starhaven, “a sanctuary for people like us, who couldn’t make the grade or fit in with organised society. Drifters and crooks and has-beens can go to Starhaven.” This criminal’s planet was built and is ruled with an iron hand by Ben Thurdan. The premise is that all the criminal tendencies cancel each other out and so a sort of law prevails. Starhaven’s constitution is simple, “Expect the same treatment that you hand out to others,” and “ You’ll do whatever Ben Thurdan tells you to do without, argument, question, or hesitation.”

On arrival Mantell is subjected to a psychprobe, which reveals him to have an unusual level of will but also to be guilty of the murder of which he remembers himself innocent. Soon after, Mantell begins to be struck by episodes in which he is not quite himself. Thurdan employs him to build a personal defence screen to prevent assassination. Meanwhile Mantell is much taken by Thurdan’s assistant Myra and also gradually finds himself drawn into a plot to remove Thurdan from power.

Of its time and far from Silverberg’s 60s heights. I only read it for completist reasons.

Pedant’s corner:- one count of Thurban for Thurdan, several of quotation marks missing, “Only there was a pink blur waiting for him in this one.” ???? “He ducked, swept it under his mighty fumbling paws,” – I have no idea what the antecedent of that “it” might have been. I note here that Silverberg, too, could employ “time interval” later.

The Chalice of Death by Robert Silverberg

In “The Chalice of Death,” Planet Stories, 2012, 91 p. First published as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, 1958, as by Calvin M Knox.

Lest We Forget Thee Earth cover
 The Chalice of Death cover

This book is (dis)graced by one of the most execrable covers (right) it is possible to imagine. I felt ashamed buying it. Still, I suppose it reflects the times in which the story was first published – though the original Ace Double cover (left) is more restrained. Silverberg is of course one of my SF immortals and the book contains two other early works of his which I shall get round to later. Not that his early stuff is necessarily of great quality; he fairly churned it out. It was only when he came back to the field in the late 1960s that his genius shone through. It is to him, specifically his The Man in the Maze, that my continuing reading of SF beyond that date is due.

In The Chalice of Death, Earth, once the centre of a great galactic empire, has been lost in the mists of time but nevertheless Earthmen act as advisors to the rulers on many of the planets. Hallam Navarre acts as one such to Joroiran VII on the planet Jorus. His rival advisor, the Lyrellan Kausirn, takes advantage of a minor slip to lever Navarre away from influence. As a result Navarre is sent by Joroirdan to locate the eponymous chalice, in the hope it will grant eternal life to the ruler. Since it doesn’t exist that represents a problem. Navarre and his companions, one a half-breed Earthman, the other, Helna Wistin a (female) advisor to the ruler of Kariad, nevertheless find Earth within a chapter or so and a vault there where survivors from the time of supremacy have been kept in suspended animation over the millenia. They hatch a plot to revive Earth’s fortunes and the remainder of the story follows that process.

On even the most cursory examination most of this falls apart. Since we only meet two actual full blood Earthmen (which is the generic term adopted throughout) it is difficult to see how the race has managed to propagate itself over the years – still less for individuals to accede to their positions as advisors. The slightly unsavoury assumption that Earthmen (it’s got me at it now) are intrinsically better than the universe’s other inhabitants was also unexceptional back in the 1950s. And it was amusing to find Navarre using a slide rule for a calculation. But none of this is the point. This is pulp adventure stuff and can only be read as such. No pretentions to characterisation need apply; nor any consideration of literary merit. I read it as a would-be Silverberg completist, without high expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. Nothing could dim my memories of Silverberg’s glory period.

When the Blue Shift Comes by Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amoro

Gollancz, 2014, 187p

The Member and The Radical cover

“Heigh-ho! It’s time to sing of the ending of time!” is the first sentence of this strange confection. It originated in a failed attempt by Silverberg to write a novel about the end of the universe in “a flamboyant, high-spirited postmodern style, using direct asides to the reader and other little playful … touches.” It comprises two novellas, The Song of Last Things by Silverberg himself and The Last Mandala Sweeps by Alvaro Zinos-Amoro. Sandwiched between them is an introduction to Zinos-Amoro and When the Blue Shift Comes as a whole. In this Silverberg reveals what I had long suspected – that he has more or less given up writing fiction. Only an invitation to a venture where established writers would contribute a novella to a book, to be complemented by another by a protégé, broke this trend. Silverberg didn’t write something new. He dusted off his failed novel.

I have spoken before about Silverberg’s facility with prose and especially first paragraphs. This one continues, “Yes, the death of worlds, the crumbling of the continuum, the great Folding-in of the Gloriously Unfolded.” A lot to live up to you might think.

The story is set in Year 777 of Cycle 888 of the 1,111th Encompassment of the Ninth Mandala. This phrase is repeated so often it becomes engrained in the mind. (Nevertheless, why that “Ninth” is capitalised when the other numbers are not is a mystery.)

Hanosz Prime, ruler of the Parasol system in the Andromeda Nebula is about to undergo his umpteenth regeneration. (While he expects to die at some point, it is a peculiarity of this time that residents of Earth – still human, as is Hanosz, though their physical appearance is not like ours at all and is indeed, mutable – are immortal, provided they don’t spend prolonged periods elsewhere.) A traveller called Zereshk Poloi informs him that the universe is ending. (It turns out that something called a Twisselman hypersingularity – like a black hole but considerably more aggressive and therefore even nastier – is expanding more than exponentially, sucking the Milky Way into itself and threatening the galaxies beyond.)

(The two novellas are full of parenthetical narrator’s inserts like these.)

(Sometimes several follow one upon the other.)

(It gets quite irritating after a while.)

In his prime Silverberg might have been able to bring this sort of thing off with something approaching brio. As it is, and while Zinos-Amaro does bring the project to a more or less coherent conclusion, there is something amiss, the end result is just too silly. It pains me to say this as Silverberg is one of my SF immortals but on this evidence it’s probably as well he has given up the scribbling game. Heigh-ho.

Annoyances corner. We had the USianism “spit” used as a past tense. It’s so much less pithy and vituperous than “spat.”

Astounding Science Fiction Vol. XIV, No. 3 (British Edition) March 1958

(Cover price 1/9 – an increase of 75% over 69 months.)

Cover of Astounding Science Fiction Mar 1958

This is the issue I bought at an antique fair last year along with the corresponding magazine issue from July 1952. The dimensions had by this time shrunk to 8 x 5½ inch. As well as the fiction there is an editorial, an article, some book reviews and a puff for the next issue. The cover illustration is by Kelly Freas. The seventeen interior illustrations are by Freas and van Dongen. The layout is in single columns.

The Gentle Earth by Christopher Anvil
Invaders from another planet land in the central US as a first step. Their knowledge of conditions on Earth – climatic and social – isn’t adequate. The story is meant to be humorous and is diverting enough but it’s a throwaway.

The Shrines of Earth by Robert Silverberg
Earth is a rural backwater, peopled by flute players. It is under threat from the Hrossai and the locals hatch a plan to inveigle help from former colony worlds to protect the ancient shrines of Earth.

Article: Science Fiction in a Robot’s Eye by Jack Williamson
This comments on a “recent” study of stories from 3 SF magazines over the years 1951-3 where statistical techniques were used for analysis. Bug-eyed monsters were rare, predictive type stories over-represented and minorities treated better than in other magazine fiction of the time.

One Per Cent Inspiration by Edward Wellen
A tale about how a Montana farmer one day in 1998 invented the teleportation drive.
This had one linguistic term I don’t remember seeing before, “stacks of timothy.” Apparently timothy is a kind of grass used for hay.

Citizen of the Galaxy, part 3 of 4 by Robert A Heinlein
Since I’m never likely to come across parts 1, 2 and 4, I didn’t bother with this.

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

A Tale of Adventure. Sceptre, 2007, 204p

Gentlemen of the Road cover

This was a delight. The story of two Jews With Swords (as Chabon’s working title had it) in the region of Khazaria on the Silk Road about 1,000 years ago it is a modern Boy’s Adventure Story. It is a long time since I read one of those but as far as my memory serves Chabon writes this much better than the Victorians did.

The two Jews are both a long way from home. Zelikman is from Regensburg in the Frankish Kingdom, and Amram is an African descendant of Solomon via the Queen of Sheba. Their scamming of other travellers by faking fights in order to profit from the betting thereon is interrupted by their encounter with Filaq, heir to a bekdom which has been usurped. Gentlemen of the Road is an admirably short novel but manages nevertheless to incorporate a lot of action.

The sentence structure can be convoluted, incorporating digressions and sub-clauses, but everything is in its place and contributes to the ongoing story. The inclusion (one per chapter) of full page illustrations of lines from the text gives the book the correct retro feel. How it relates to the work of such as R M Ballantyne and G A Henty I cannot say as my memory of those is hazy, but I doubt they had any sexual content as this does, briefly. What was unlikely in those is a woman having the agency one of the characters in this book exerts, indeed any sort of agency at all.

Chabon’s depiction of the times of the book accords with what I know of that era and place and extends it. I did wonder if the bek and kagan dual ruler set up in Khazaria might have been an inspiration to Robert Silverberg for the Coronal and Pontifex of his Majipoor novels and stories.

The end-papers contain a lovely map of Khazaria and the surrounding lands.

Gentlemen of the Road is a beautiful artefact, outside and in.

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