Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (Orbit, 978-0-7653-8888-9, $25.99, hc, 333 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Well, especially for those who have read my previous Hugo reviews this year, let’s cut right to the chase. I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire – it’s a fun book with an intriguing central premise and characters I liked to follow, and some nice action. But it’s not a great book – I don’t think it one of the ten or so best novels of the year. (It’s in the next tranche, along with the other books I reviewed to date (Raven Stratagem excepted – that’s a notch higher).)  There’s no shame in that – Scalzi is a reliably enjoyable writer, and this book is no exception.

I might add that the of the four novels I’ve read from the ballot so far, three are Space Opera by my definition (The Collapsing Empire, Raven Stratagem, and Provenance), and the other (Six Wakes) is also set on a spaceship decades from Earth, though I wouldn’t quite call it Space Opera.. Indeed, we seem to be in something of a Golden Age – or perhaps Silver Age – of Space Opera – the Philip K. Dick Award shortlist included another couple of Space Operas: Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger and Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars (with Martha Wells’ All Systems Red sort of Space Opera-adjacent). (No Space Opera on the Nebula shortlist, though!)

(Neither of the two books I have yet to read from the Hugo Ballot are Space Opera, however.)

The Collapsing Empire is set in a future interstellar human society, the Interdependency, in which the inhabited planets are linked by “the Flow” – that is, the familiar wormhole-type shortcuts between star systems. But, we soon learn, the Flow is beginning to collapse. (Hence the title!)

The story follows three people primarily. Cardenia Wu-Patrick is the new Emperox of the Interdependency, as her father dies at the beginning of the book. She has a few problems – she’s inexperienced (even more so than most new Emperoxes (Emperoxi? Emperoux?), she needs to consider marriage and the most politically advantageous men and women candidates are assholes, and, of course, as she soon hears, the Flow might be collapsing. But, luckily, she has the memories and simulated personalities of all the previous 86 Emperoxes to consult.

Kiva Lagos is a noblewoman acting as Owner’s Representative for the House of Lagos as they deliver a shipment of fruit to End, the most isolated of the Interdepency’s planets – at least with the current configuration of the Flow. However, End is undergoing a revolution, and Kiva’s shipment is impounded – obviously on the orders of the Duke, who is actually being advised by a member of the family of assholes Cardenia is dealing with.

The third POV character is Marce Claremont. He’s a Professor of Astronomy on End, stuck there because his father discovered evidence that the Flow was likely to collapse, which got him ennobled – and more or less exile to End. Now that it’s truly clear that the Flow is ending, the Count decides to sends his son back to the ruling planet to advise the new Emperox – but this is not easy because of the political situation on End.

What follows is, really, mostly setup for the following books in this series. And not bad setup – not bad at all. I’ll certainly be reading the rest of the series. This book features lots of action – assassination attempts on Cardenia, derring do in sneaking Marce onto a starship, and plenty of peril on the starship itself, and a whole lot of twisty and nasty political maneuvering. Fine fun work. And the rest of the series has a chance to be even better. This book isn’t bad at all, but it’s not, in my view, Hugo-worthy. (For one thing, fun as it is, it doesn’t really do anything new. That’s not exactly a complaint – it’s a nice variation on a number of familiar themes. But for a Hugo I would like a bit more.)

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Puzzle Planet, by Robert A. W. Lowndes/The Angry Espers, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Ace Double Reviews, 51: The Puzzle Planet, by Robert A. W. Lowndes/The Angry Espers, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (#D-485, 1961, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

(I'm resurrecting this old Ace Double review today because April 17 was Lloyd Biggle's birthday.)

This qualifies as a pretty minor Ace Double in the scheme of things. The Puzzle Planet is about 41,000 words long, The Angry Espers about 48,000 words. The Angry Espers was also published as a complete novel under the title "A Taste of Fire" in the August 1959 Amazing -- I would assume that was a shorter version, though it's just possible that the whole novel appeared in the magazine.

Robert A. W. Lowndes (1916-1998) is of course primarily known as an editor. He worked mostly for Columbia publishing, and edited a host of magazines in several genres. He was notable for producing quite decent magazines on very limited budgets. Among his better known SF magazines were Future and Science Fiction Stories. He wrote a modest quantity of short stories, and four novels. The other novels are The Duplicated Man, a collaboration with James Blish (much of Lowndes' output was in collaboration), Believers' World, a 1961 expansion of "A Matter of Faith", published as by Michael Sherman (which was the name he used for the magazine version of The Duplicated Man) in Space Science Fiction, and The Mystery of the Third Mine (1953), a Winston juvenile. I might add that the book versions of The Duplicated Man and Believers' World came out from Avalon, the low end publishing firm where Lowdes was editor, and for that matter the The Duplicated Man first appeared in Dynamic Science Fiction, which he also edited.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
Lowndes contributes a brief foreword to The Puzzle Planet in which he mentions John Campbell's assertion that an SF mystery was impossible -- because the writer could too regularly base his solution on super science or some other SFnal quality. Lowndes (as with many other writers, notably Isaac Asimov) responded that of course SF mysteries were possible -- it was simply necessary that the writer reveal to the reader any SFnal tricks he will use -- or perhaps better, make the solution to the mystery dependent on nothing SFnal. The Puzzle Planet is his attempt at such an SF mystery.

Roy Auckland has come to the planet Carolus in order to investigate some difficulties among the archaeological team studying the planet. These difficulties, it turns out, revolve around the controversial leader of the team, Dr. Howard James, who believes that the deserts of Carolus hold evidence of a long past powerful race of aliens. But the current inhabitants, the Vaec, are a pleasant but primitive people, much given to silly practical jokes.

James seems to have been the target of a couple of failed murder attempts. But there is something fishy about those attempts. And then another member of the expedition actually is killed -- in a very unusual way. The solution to the murder turns on unraveling not only the tangled relationships of the expedition members, but the secrets of the Vaec. I suppose Lowndes plays fair enough with the reader, but his mystery just isn't that interesting, and the Vaec secrets are hokum, basically.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1923-2002) was one of the lesser known well-loved writers in the field. By this I mean that he was never really prominent, but that he was mentioned a lot as a writer worth trying out. I myself am not very familiar with his work -- all I have read is a number of short stories. Most of them appeared in the last few years of his life in Analog, and by and large these were not terribly good. The Angry Espers is the first of his novels that I have read. His reputation is as an extremely humane writer. He had a Ph.D. in musicology, and he was a Professor of ? at Eastern Michigan (indeed, he taught there while my mother was a student there, though she never took one of his classes). Many of his SF stories involve music.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
In The Angry Espers Paul Corban, a human space pilot, awakens in a hospital on an unfamiliar world. He is surprised that his attendants do not speak, and that they seem disgusted by him. Eventually he is taken to a facility with a number of other people, and he learns to speak the language of this planet. He learns that the planet is full of powerful "espers", and that he is regarded as a subhuman because he has no such ability. He has been confined to the equivalent of a mental institution, and his fellows are mostly natives who are truly mentally deficient in that they should have had esp powers but do not. He nearly despairs, despite beginning to have feelings for a sympathetic female doctor.

Then he discovers one or two more Earth humans in the institution. He lets some of the doctors know that he comes from another planet, but he (and the sympathetic doctors) have not figured on the terrible prejudice of most of the Espers against non-esps. A war is launched against the worlds of the Terran federation. The second section of the novel covers the war in some detail, mostly through the viewpoint of people connected to Paul. It is a terrible war, with Earth's technological superiority (a result of not relying on ESP for everything) only allowing them to slow the inevitable advance of a people that can anticipate every move, that communicate instantaneously, that can teleport, etc.

The third section offers some hope, rejoining Paul and his doctor girlfriend as they make a desperate attempt for political reform on the Esper planet, supporting a less-prejudiced government. Naturally they win, but the implication is a bit scary, because Biggle stacks the deck a bit in their favor (given his initial setup). One can't help but think that the real result would be extermination of Earth. (Biggle also cheats, to my mind, by allowing Paul (and by implication all humans) to have latent esp powers that he gains in moments of extreme stress.)

It's not a terrible novel, but nothing particularly memorable either. I shall have to track down a copy of one of Biggle's better known novels to try.
(Cover by Leo Summers, image courtesy of Galactic Central)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Provenance, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 978-0-316-38867-2, $26, hc, 439 pages) September 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Provenance is Ann Leckie’s fourth novel. The first three (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) make up a trilogy about an “ancillary” of the Imperial Radch who becomes involved in a conflict between two versions of the Emperor. This new novel is set in the same universe, at roughly the same time, but outside the Radch. It is engaging and fun but frankly seems just a little thin next to the Ancillary series. There’s no crime in that – I think it’s a good thing when an author reaches the point where her readers are glad to read each of her books, and are satisfied by them – but also admit that they are not each equally as good (or progressively better). Solid and enjoyable work is nothing to sneeze at. That said, if I’m saying that, it probably means I don’t consider Provenance one of the best five or six SF novels of the year – and that’s true. But it doesn’t disgrace the award by its nomination either – and, indeed, it fits with all the nominees I’ve read so far, in being enjoyable and entertaining but not exceptional.

The main character is Ingray, a decidedly privileged young woman from the planet Hwae. Ingray’s mother Netano is a very powerful figure on Hwae, and Ingray has long believed that her brother Danach is her mother’s preferred heir. (In using terms like “young woman”, “mother”, “brother”, and “heir” I’m glossing over some interesting complexities of the social and gender organization on Hwae, including that people choose genders at roughly majority, that there are three choices (he, she, and e), that children (at least in powerful families) are often adopted), etc. etc.) So Ingray, in a desperate effort to impress Netano, has arranged to retrieve Pahlad Budraikim, the disgraced child of one of her mother’s rivals from “Compassionate Removal”, a ghastly seeming prison planet used by the Hwae in lieu of the death penalty. And now she has the person in question – except e claims to be someone else entirely. And Ingray is broke.

So Ingray ends up, a bit fortuitously, with a trip back to Hwae on a ship captained by one Uisine. But that has its owned complications – in particular, Uisine is wanted for stealing his ship from the Geck. So the Geck want him, but technicalities allow Uisine to take Ingray back home. Uisine is guilty, with extenuating circumstances – he is one of a group of humans who live on the Gecks’ homeworld, but who must be adapted to their aquatic lifestyle. And his gills never came in.

Complications keeps piling up. There is Ingray and her problems, Uisine and his, and “Garal”, as the person Ingray thought was Pahlad, Burdraikim and eir problems. Things don’t get easier back on Hwae – Ingray gets involved with some foreigners who want to study an area of “ruin glass”, which has implications for Hwae’s own history, and its accepted beliefs about that history, which are pretty fundamental to their culture. Then someone is murdered. And another group, from the planet Omkem, invades and kidnaps a group of children, looking for access to stargates …

There’s a lot going on, and it’s pretty involving stuff. It’s mixed with worthwhile cultural details, varying from human group to human group, and complicated further when aliens are involved. There’s some believable and fun action. The characters are engaging. The exploration of gender roles on Hwae, intertwined interestingly with class, is nice (there are parallels with the way gender is chosen in J. Y. Yang’s Hugo-nominated novella “The Black Tides of Heaven”, and frankly I think Leckie’s depictions of gender selection more interesting than Yang’s). So, then, why did I say it sometimes seems a bit thin? One reason is that everyone seems basically an early 21st Century human, and lots of the background details of their lives don’t differ a lot from our lives. Other than that, the whole book, while remaining fun, does seem to work out a bit conveniently. It all adds up to a book I enjoyed plenty, but a book I that I don’t quite think stands among the very best novels of 2017.

(I’ll caveat this by noting that while I know and am on good terms with a great many SF writers, including several Hugo nominees this year, I probably know Ann Leckie a bit better than some of the others, for the simple reason that she lives in a neighboring suburb to mine, that we sometimes go to the same grocery store, that our kids went to the same high school at about the same time, and that she, for example, signed my copy of Provenance at a local independent book store. So take anything I say with whatever heaps of salt you wish.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Another Ace Double Review: The Ballad of Beta-2, by Samuel R. Delany/Alpha Yes, Terra No!, by Emil Petaja

Ace Double Reviews, 82: The Ballad of Beta-2, by Samuel R. Delany/Alpha Yes, Terra No!, by Emil Petaja (#M-121, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

April 12th is Emil Petaja's birthday, so I figured this is a good day to repost this review, first written in 2008. And any day is a good day to post a review of a Samuel R. Delany novel!

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Valigursky)
I used to speculate as to which of an Ace Double pair was considered the "lead" title. I've since decided that there wasn't necessarily one at all -- that both were by default considered "equal". But if there was a lead one, surely the much longer one, by the older, more established, writer would be it? And when this Ace Double appeared, maybe that was the case, and maybe the marketing focussed on Emil Petaja's Alpha Yes, Terra No! After all, it's 50,000 words long, by a veteran writer (who ended up being named SFWA's first Author Emeritus). The Ballad of Beta-2 is only about 29,000 words, and while it was Samuel R. Delany's fifth book, Delany was still very young (23), and his books hadn't really made much of an impact yet. But from the perspective of 2008, the Petaja novel is the curiosity, the appendage which (I suspect) is more likely to be read because it happens to come along with a Delany story than on its own (let's be honest, rather limited) merits.

Of course we know the real reason Wollheim paired these two novels: he thought it was cute to have one side with an "Alpha" title, and the other with a "Beta" title! (I have no doubt whatsoever that that's the case, too.)

Even saying that about Delany's latterday prominence (and noting that he is an SFWA Grand Master, and one of the field's very greatest writers), one comes away from The Ballad of Beta-2 understanding why he wasn't yet a superstar. Because this really isn't a very good book. It was with his next couple of books (Empire Star and Babel-17) that he truly hit his stride. You can certainly see in The Ballad of Beta-2 some of the stylistic quirks that mark his best work -- that is, it is undeniably a Delany story -- just a weakish one.

It fits into that fairly large subgenre of "generation ship gone wrong" tales, though that isn't clear from the start. It opens with a student, Joneny, ordered by his professor to study the "Star Folk", an obscure group of humans living around a planet called Leffer VI. Joneny reluctantly takes as his subject one of the Star Folk ballads, "The Ballad of Beta-2", and he heads to Leffer VI to try to meet the Star Folk.

He learns that the Star Folk are descendants of a group of people who left Earth in a number of generation ships -- but, as seems almost traditional by now, FTL travel was invented and the stars colonized before they ever got where they were going. A few of them limped into Leffer VI after some centuries, but they didn't want to leave their ships, so they are allowed to stay on board, maintaining their ship-based culture. A couple more ships reached Leffer VI as wrecks, and a couple more never made it.

Joneny, with the help of a mysterious young man he meets on one of the wrecked ships, finds a couple of ship's logs, and reads the tale of the passage between the stars. He quickly realizes that the mysterious lines of the "ballad of Beta-2" actually tell of real events: the "sand" mentioned in the ballad is space dust or something like that, the Beta-2 is one of the ships, the woman in the ballad is the captain of one of the ships, etc. etc. All this is a bit too programmatic perhaps but kind of interesting in its way. Where Delany lost me was his final revelation: the nature of the young he meets, and why the ships ran into such trouble.

In all fairness, it's not really a terrible story. It's just not nearly as good as Delany would be doing within months of this novel's appearance.

One cute note: the second sentence shows Delany making a remarkable prediction: he seems to refer to compact fluorescent light bulbs: "White light from the helical fixture struck the sharp bones of the professor's face."

Emil Petaja (pronounced Puh-TIE-uh, apparently -- I had always thought it Puh-TAH-huh) was a Montana-born writer of Finnish descent. He was born in 1915 and died in 2000. He became a friend of the near-legendary SF artist Hannes Bok at an early age, and lived with Bok for a time. Petaja wrote stories and poems, some Lovecraftian, and began to sell to the pulps in 1942. He wrote SF and also mysteries for about a decade, then stopped writing and worked as a photographer in San Francisco. He was lured back to the field in 1965 or so -- apparently (at least in part) by Fred Pohl, who bought stories by a number of old pulpsters (such as Robert Moore Williams, A. E. Van Vogt, Bryce Walton, and Jerome Bixby) for Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow in the mid-60s. His first novel was published in 1965, his last in 1970. He may be best known for his cycle of four novels (a fifth remains unpublished) based on the Finnish legend cycle the Kalevala. He was the first SFWA Author Emeritus, in 1995.

Alpha Yes, Terra No! opens with a shapechanging alien from Alpha Centauri visiting Earth, in the early years of the 21st Century. (That is, about now -- it's kind of fun to read a story set in our "present" and see how different things are.) He is apparently here in defiance of his planet's rulers -- but quite why we don't know. It's clear he holds humans in something like contempt. But as he makes his way through San Francisco he does encounter some people he likes, particularly Kora, a young woman, a prostitute's daughter, who tries to help the poor and downtrodden; and Oren Starr, a folksinger of particular talent -- who himself falls for Kora immediately.

We soon learn that Kora and Oren are partially Alphan -- the result of a forbidden experiment generations before. And the alien invader is desperately trying to find "good" humans to stave off the dominant faction on Alpha Centauri who want humanity exterminated before they can get out of the Solar System. Oren and Kora are the key. So he manipulates them to go to Mars, where the evil "Big Man" who runs the Solar System behind the scenes is trying to build a starship. And from there, of course, the path leads to Alpha Centauri -- but there are pitfalls on the way, partly because of the bad guy from Alpha C trying to track them down.

The resolution, hinted at in the cover copy, is a trial of Terra, reminiscent perhaps of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. I wasn't terribly impressed by Petaja's arguments in this section -- he allows the Alpha C bad guy to get away with too much, in particular. The resolution is not a big surprise of course, though in some ways it works better than most of the book.

On the whole, it's a bad book. The structure is silly, the characters don't make sense, there is little or no originality. And there are such howlers as one event on Mars. They are driving, when all of a sudden it gets completely dark, everything stops. Why? Phobos has just eclipsed the sun. It is explained that this happens many times a day. Well, it's true that Phobos does pass in front of the Sun many times a day -- but its disk is so small relative to the Sun's disk at Mars that it does not significantly affect the Sun's illumination.

Hugo Ballot Review: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (Orbit, 978-0-316-38867-2, $26, hc, 439 pages) September 2017

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Chris Moore)
I was very impressed by Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, which made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists last year. Raven Stratagem is the sequel (one more book, Revenant Gun, is due in June to complete the Machineries of Empire Trilogy, and there have been numerous short stories set in the same universe, including “Extracurricular Activities”, which will appear in my upcoming Best of the Year volume.) One thing to note about these books is that they succeed quite well in being standalone in the sense that each of the first two books reaches a satisfactory conclusion. (That is not to say that I recommend reading Raven Stratagem without having read Ninefox Gambit, though I think one could without too much trouble.)

As the book open, General Kel Khiruev and her swarm of warships have been tapped to deal with the heretical Hafn uprising. However, she is waiting for an unexpected new Captain, Kel Cheris, for reasons obscure to her. When Cheris comes on board, they suddenly realize that she has been possessed by the undead General Shuos Jedao, who has been kept in the “Black Cradle” for 400 years, after he massacred millions (including his own crew) at the Battle of Hellspin Station. Jedao is a tactical genius, and the Hexarchate’s military faction, the Kel, release him to be “anchored” to another Kel every so often to make use of his ability. He and Kel Cheris (his anchor) just dealt with the Hafn heretics at the Fortress of Scattered Needles. All this backstory is the subject of Ninefox Gambit.

As Jedao outranks Khiruev, he takes over the swarm from her, and the Kel crew are helpless to resist because of “formation instinct”. It soon become clear that he has rebelled against the Hexarchate, but the formation instinct prevents the crew from opposing him, though Khiruev barely manages an assassination attempt. Jedao’s immediate mission, however, seems to be just what Khiruev had been ordered to do – defeat the Hafn. And soon he is mentoring Khiruev in some sense, and indeed bringing Khiruev to understand why he is rebelling.

There are two more threads. One concerns Colonel Kel Brezan, who is a “crashhawk” – immune to formation instinct. He could resist Jedao, so Jedao had him expelled from the swarm (but not killed, key to Jedao’s ethic). Brezan, desperate to prove his loyalty, jumps through hoops to get the message about Jedao’s takeover to Kel Command – and eventually is charged with accompanying an assassin who will kill Jedao, with now General Brezan taking command of the swarm.

The other thread follows the Hexarch of the Shuos faction, Mikodez, who seems to be the most powerful of the six Hexarchs, and who is coordinating the reaction to Jedao’s insurrection. But Mikodez has some secret plans of his own … This thread also involves his brother/double/lover Intradez, and his aide Zehun, who has a history with Brezan, and a plan to make all the Hexarchs immortal (one already is, but in an unsatisfactory fashion).

The novel is interesting reading throughout, with plenty of action (and some pretty cool battle scenes), some rather ghastly (in a good sense) comic bits, and lots of pain and angst. There is a continuing revelation of just how awful the Hexarchate is, with the only defense offered even by its supporters being “anything else would be worse”. There is genocide, lots of murders, lots of collateral damage. The resolution is well-planned and integral to the nature of this universe, with a good twist or two to boot. It’s a good strong novel that I enjoyed a lot.

That said (those “buts” again!), Raven Stratagem didn’t make quite the impact on me that Ninefox Gambit did. Some of that could be middle book syndrome, but not so much, really – as I said before, these two books do a good job avoiding the structural issues, and semi-cheats, that sometimes pop up with trilogies. I suppose I found some of the battle scenes, and some of the star travel in general, a bit too, well, easy, as, too, some of the characters’ personal convictions seemed to change a bit quickly. These are not major problems, but I think they are reasons I consider it not quite as good as the first book (which had the usual first book advantage of introducing a lot of cool stuff). I am certainly looking forward to the conclusion, and there are indeed mysteries and loose ends enough to be resolved.

I won’t know where it ranks on my Hugo ballot until I finish reading the nominees, but of the four I’ve read, I do think I’d put it first. But I don’t consider it as good as the five novels I nominated for the Hugo (though actually the final two on my Hugo nomination list and Raven Stratagem are about the same quality in my mind – at the level where we have to acknowledge that these are different books trying to do different things, each succeeding pretty well in their own ways.)

One final amusing note – Khiruev’s swarm is called the Swanknot, referring, I assume, to swans with their necks intertwined (or knotted) – her emblem. But I couldn’t help thinking of it as “Swank not” – meaning perhaps that the swarm isn’t too luxuriously appointed.

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Old Ace Double: Masters of Evolution, by Damon Knight/Fire in the Heavens, by George O. Smith

Ace Double Reviews, 26: Masters of Evolution, by Damon Knight/Fire in the Heavens, by George O. Smith (#D-375, 1959, $0.35)

(I'm reposting this old Ace Double review on April 9 because that was George O. Smith's birthday.)

Here's an Ace Double from the '50s, featuring two pretty popular writers of that time. Damon Knight, of course, was the more important figure, and his work is lasting. Smith made an impact in the '40s with the Venus Equilateral stories, about a Solar System wide communications relay (and eventually a matter transmission system), which I frankly find unreadable today. He also wrote some more respected novels later on, including The Fourth "R". Smith was born in 1911 in Chicago, attended the University of Chicago. He was an engineer, working at IT&T from when he mostly ceased writing in 1959 until 1974. Somewhat notoriously, he had an affair with John Campbell's wife Dona (source of Campbell's pseudonym "Don A. Stuart"), and they married after each divorced their first spouse. He was given the First Fandom award at the 1980 Worldcon (amusingly, his New York Times obituary misread that detail, and credited him with getting the very first "Fandom Award").

As for Damon Knight, he was born in 1922 in Oregon and died in 2002. He was a prominent fan beginning as early as age 11, and was a member of the influential early fan group the Futurians. He was an illustrator in the '40s, writing a few short stories but becoming far more prolific by the late '40s, and beginning to produce major work in the '50s. His great stories include "The Country of the Kind", "Masks", "Fortyday", "I See You", "Four in One", and particularly a number of great novellas, first among them in my opinion "The Earth Quarter", but also "Rule Golden", "Double Meaning", and "Dio". His early novels were less successful, but he improved over time, and his last two novels, Why Do Birds (1992) and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval (1996), are quite remarkable. But that barely scratches the surface of his contributions: he was a major editor (of magazines like If and Worlds Beyond, and more importantly of the original anthology series Orbit; not to mention numerous excellent reprint anthologies), he was a significant critic, known best for In Search of Wonder, and he was the founding force behind SFWA, as well as the famous Milford  writers' workshop. He was married three times, the last time, for the last 39 years of his life, to the great writer Kate Wilhelm (who died recently).

It's always worthwhile looking at the Science Fiction Encylopedia entries for writers, here are those for George O. Smith, and for Damon Knight.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
Masters of Evolution is a slight expansion (from 25,000 words to 30,000 words) of Knight's 1954 novella "Natural State", which appeared in Galaxy. It is the first of three Ace Double halves Knight produced by expanding '50s novellas. With the short story collection Off Center, these are the only four Ace Double halves (in three books) that Knight wrote. (I have reviewed all of Knight's Ace Doubles now.) George O. Smith wrote two Ace Double halves, Fire in the Heavens as well as Lost in Space (1960). (He should not be confused with George H. Smith, who wrote the Ace Double half Kar Kaballa (1969).) Fire in the Heavens is a reprint of a 1958 Thomas Bouregy hardcover, and it is about 52,000 words long. It was first published in Startling Stories in July 1949, possibly the same version though the book might be expanded.

In Masters of Evolution the world is divided into city dwellers and "muckfeet". The city dwellers rely on high technology. They are conditioned to fear and feel sick at the thought of country life, and of muckfeet food and hygiene. They have previously fought wars, which both sides claim to have won: but as there are only 22 remaining cities in the whole world, and the muckfeet control the rest of the area, and have a much higher population, the real winners seem obvious.

As the book opens, the Mayor of New York has a desperate idea. He assigns a leading actor, Alvah Gustad, to fly out to the muckfeet and offer to trade with them: the high tech city products in exchange for much needed metals -- and also in the hopes of converting the muckfeet to city ways. Alvah somewhat reluctantly and fearfully makes his way to the country. At first he is confronted with suspicion and threats, or is just ignored. But finally he is given a chance to sell his wares at a fair somewhere in the Midwest. Much to his surprise, nobody is remotely interested in his products -- and worse, after he gets into a scuffle, he finds that the muckfeet have managed to completely disable his energy sources. He is stranded.

A pretty young woman named B. J. and a wise mentor type named Doc Bither take Alvah under their arms, and over some weeks they manage to overcome his conditioning against muckfeet food and smells. We get a look at the muckfeet way of life, which is based on using spectacular products of genetic engineering in place of machines. For example, for airplanes they use "rocs" -- huge flying lizards. Plants are used to extract metals from the ground. Other animals are used as truck or as message devices or as "libraries". Alvah is still reluctant to become a muckfoot, though -- he is still loyal to New York. But he is also in love with B. J. And when the cities launch an attack on the muckfeet, Alvah realizes that many things he has long believed are false. The novel is resolved in a predictable confrontation between Alvah's new friends and his old city.

This is a decent piece of work, enjoyable enough, but lesser work than Knight's best. I would rank it third of his three Ace Doubles (not counting the story collection). Some of the plot contrivances just don't convince -- such as Alvah and the very first muckfoot girl he meets falling in love. And Knight's case for the "natural state" versus "technology" is grossly loaded -- the cities' high tech is burdened by having to comply with the laws of physics, basically, which don't really seem to affect the muckfeet genetic creations. Or put another way -- Knight imagines a utopian perfection of genetic engineering, with limited costs; but the opposing high technology is auctorially declared to be inferior -- but not proven so.

(I also looked at the differences between the original novella and the expanded Ace Double. They consist of a brief passage, about a page, in the middle of the book which explains some of the genetic engineering; and a long additional sequence right at the end, extending the final conflict and giving Alvah a chance to be an action hero of sorts. On the whole, the additions are padding, though I think the explanatory passage fits fine.)

The cover of Fire in the Heavens features a spaceship pulling a string of sailing ships through interplanetary space. I assumed that was just a piece of artistic license -- the artist fancifully depicting the theme of the book. I was wrong -- the cover is a fairly accurate representation of an actual scene! That should tell you just how hokey this novel is.

The hero of the novel is Jeff Benson, a brilliant young physicist who runs a company making scientific instruments. (I thought it significant that Benson is a physicist but is portrayed as an engineer, someone whose main job is putting stuff together.) He runs afoul of the beautiful but amoral Lucille Roman, who runs a sort of megacorporation. Jeff's acquaintance with Charles Horne, one of Lucille's rivals, is enough to convince Lucille that he is in cahoots against her. Lucille's company has developed a new atomic jet, the Roman Jet, but her chief physicist doesn't understand how it works. But Lucille is unwilling to trust Jeff to work with her company. And Jeff is too naive to realize that Charles Horne is as amoral as Lucille.

Jeff has a theory that conservation of mass/energy is not absolute -- that some energy is lost, perhaps into a different universe, whenever any energy is used. When the Roman Jet is tested on a spaceship, the sun is noticed to become unstable. The Jet is blamed for this (through the connivance of Horne), but Jeff's theory offers an alternate explanation. Either way, though, the Sun seems likely to go nova.

Horne hatches a plot to steal Lucille's spaceship and fly to Procyon. For supplies he uses the spaceship to yank a number of cargo ships into space (hence the cover!) Meanwhile Jeff has found a way to use a variation of the Roman Jet to contact other universes. And Lucille is on the run from lynch mobs who believe she has caused the impending nova ...

It's all really too too silly. Surely Smith knew this! And there also cliches such as the beautiful and amoral and sexually loose (it is implied, not shown) woman turning into mush and falling in love with the innocent and virtuous hero. And the plot is discursive and casual and just kind of dumb. Not a very good book at all.

And, finally -- the cover of the July 1949 issue of Startling Stories, by Earle Bergey, needs to be shown:

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hugo and Nebula Ballot Review: Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty (Orbit, 978-0-316-38968-6, $15.99, tpb, 364 pages) January 2017

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover design by Kirk Benshoff)
Six Wakes has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick, Nebula, and Hugo awards, a pretty impressive trifecta. Mur Lafferty has published several previous books, but I confess I had only barely heard of her before – I saw her on a panel at a convention (which? I’m not sure!) and she was impressive there, and I knew she was involved with the well-regarded fiction podcast Escape Pod. But even before the award nominations, Six Wakes was getting some good notice, and I bought it and read it after the Nebula nod. And, you know what – I liked it. It’s a good fun fast-moving read. I’m glad I read it.

But – well – you saw that coming, right? There had to be a but. The thing is, there are lots of enjoyable novels published any year, and I’m glad when I encounter those. But I can enjoy a novel and not think it worthy of an award. And, really, that’s the case with Six Wakes. It’s fun, it’s pretty darn pure hard SF (with the understanding that “hard SF” absolutely does NOT mean “SF that gets all the science right”), it’s exciting. But, it also has some annoying logic holes, and it doesn’t really engage with the central (and very worthwhile) moral issues it raises as rigorously as I wish it had, and the prose is just OK.

The book opens with Maria Arena waking in a cloning tank on board the starship Dormire. She has no memories beyond just moving into the ship. Something must have happened, to require a clone to be created … She quickly learns at all her crewmates are in the same boat – they’ve all been cloned. And their journey is 25 years on … And, it soon becomes clear, all the crew members’ originals have been viciously killed.

The remainder of the crew are the Captain, Katrina de la Cruz, her First Officer, Wolfgang, pilot/navigator Akihiro Sato, engineer Paul Seurat, and Doctor Joanna Glass. There is no good evidence as to who killed everyone else (and then, presumably, themself). And nobody knows what has happened over the last 25 years. There is one major complication, however – the Captain’s original is actually still alive, in a coma. Which according to the law (though I wondered, why in the heck would the Earth law matter in a case like this?) means she (the original) is supposed to be killed immediately. But she might be the only witness to the crimes that led to the rest of them dying.

A few things are revealed – first, all the crew are criminals. They have been offered a chance to start over, on a new world, with their crimes forgotten, in exchange for crewing the starship en route to a supposedly habitable planet orbiting Tau Ceti. There are a great many other colonists in sleep tanks on the ship. And there’s a seventh individual – the AI controlling the ship’s functions.

Complications multiply – the AI seems to be malfunctioning. So is the food synthesizer. And as the crew members’ back stories are revealed, we learn that they are (in many cases) worse criminals than we imagined, with reasons to hate and fear the other members of the crew. And that’s not the end … Indeed, the story is very busy with action and motivations and ideas, mostly in a good way. And the ultimate resolution is, well, understandable and sensible enough, if perhaps not quite fully satisfying.

Bottom line – this is a good and enjoyable novel, but not a great one. I think you’ll enjoy it if you read it, and I recommend you do. But it wouldn’t have been on my Hugo nomination ballot – which, let’s be honest, is a minor point. It might be, say, the 10th or 15th best SF novel of the year, but in a pretty deep year, that still means it’s a nice book.