Sunday, January 21, 2018

Three Philip K. Dick Award nominees

Three Philip K. Dick Award nominees

The nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award for Best SF Novel first published in paperback were announced the other day. They are:

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison (47North)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit)
After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun (The Unnamed Press)
The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt (Angry Robot)
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds (Orbit)
Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (

I confess I had had heard of neither The Book of Etta nor After the Flare before this nomination – which is, to be sure, one of the good things about awards! I had heard of both Six Wakes and Revenger – both look interesting, in fact – but I haven’t read either of them. I have, however, read the other three, all of which are good books, so I’ll review them in brief here.

Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner, 978-0-544-94730-6, $14.99, tpb, 275 pages) July 2017

This is the first novel set in Carrie Vaughn’s post-Apocalyptic sequence. That sequence already includes some excellent short stories (“Amaryllis”, “Astrophilia”, and “Bannerless” (a sort of beta version of the novel). One did wonder if she was going to do an alphabetic tour …) Technological civilization has collapsed, and, decades later, on what seems the California coast, a loose society has formed, built around essentially green principles, most notably an insistence on families earning the right to have children. This right is indicated by banners. So a “bannerless” child invites punishment for the parents, and often social ostracism for the (obviously blameless) children.

The novel is a mystery in form. The protagonist is Enid, an investigator, someone who travels among the local towns when something suspicious occurs. She is new at her job, and when a suspicious death is reported in Pasadan, her mentor, Tomas, suggests that she lead this investigation, with Tomas’ support. So, the main thread follows Enid and Tomas through their investigation, which concerns the death of a man. This man lived alone, perhaps due to his nature, but perhaps because he was a bannerless child. There is considerable political pressure to have the death considered an accident – and indeed, it seems, perhaps it was – but there are curious elements. And complicating factors – a connection to a prosperous local family, the general dislike of the victim – and, even, the presence of Enid’s former lover, Dak. (Not the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback!)

The second thread begins in Enid’s childhood, and follows her life up to the novel’s present. This thread allows us to see even more of the structure of this future society – including the families, which are extended in nature, and only partly based on genetic ties. We also see some hints of the time of the collapse – Enid has an “aunt” who is one of the few people still alive who remember the world before. And we follow Enid’s romance with Dak, a particularly talented musician (who ends up acting like a certain common depiction of contemporary rock stars).

It’s very fine work – building an interesting society, and at least suggesting some flaws in what at first glance seems a near-Utopian adaptation to post-Collapse conditions. (“Astrophilia”, in particular, is even better at poking at the complacent beliefs of that society in its virtue. It is an abiding fault of post-Apocalyptic writings (I’m looking at you, Edgar Pangborn!) to take a certain glee in the collapse of civilization, allowing its replacement by the author’s preferred social forms.) The murder mystery is solved plausibly (if not terrible surprisingly, but that isn’t necessarily a fault), and its solution also shows stresses in the society’s underpinnings. I liked the book a lot. A sequel, The Wild Roads, is due in 2018.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (, 978-0765397539, $14.99, tpb, 160 pages) May 2017

I’m going to be a tad coy here, as my capsule review of this will be in the February Locus. So all I’ll say here is that I recommend this highly. I think it’s a long novella, by Nebula/Hugo rules, but perhaps it’s a short novel instead. (Either way, it’s definitely eligible for the Philip K. Dick Award.) This is great fun, about an android employed as security for a scientific team investigation an alien planet. The android, which calls itself murderbot, for reasons tied to its past, really just wants to watch old television, but it finds itself forced to deal with a real threat to its clients. Funny, thoughtful about AI rights, and good solid adventure. Tremendous fun, really. Two further stories in what is being called collectively The Murderbot Diaries are due in 2018.

The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt (Angry Robot, 978-0-85766-709-0, $7.99, mmpb, 396 pages) September 2017

This is really cool Space Opera, again lots of fun. As with most Space Opera, some of the science bits are a whole lot handwavy – and maybe that’s just fine, because, really, is present day science the be all and end all of reality? In some ways this reminded me of Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and I thought maybe some more stories as well, which makes me think I ought to examine further and decide if there is now a popular subgenre of Space Opera concerning the almost soap-operatic interactions of a small varied spaceship crew.

One viewpoint character of The Wrong Stars is Callie, Captain of a spaceship, the White Raven, that does solo work and also occasionally works for the Trans-Neptunian Authority, in a future in which humanity has just stepped back from the brink of species disaster, having nearly ruined the Earth. Partly or perhaps mostly because of tech bartered from aliens called the Liars, Earth has been restored to a gardenlike state, and humans have occupied most of the Solar System. They have also colonized 29 planets, via wormhole bridges sold them by the Liars.

The other viewpoint character is Elena Oh. She was a crewmember on a Goldilocks ship – one of a number of starships sent to likely looking star systems in a Hail Mary attempt to save human civilization before the Liars appeared. These ships were slower than light, with the crew in suspended animation. Elena’s ship, the Anjou, has been found by the White Raven in Trans-Neptunian space, and it has been weirdly altered. Elena is the only person on board. And her memories are fractured, but they suggest that something very strange occurred in the system they finally reached … leading to Elena being sent back to the Solar System alone.

There is immediate sexual attraction between Elena and Callie (who are both recovering from relationships or crushes with men). This complicates their future interactions. But things are complicated anyway, with Callie’s crew consisting of a motley arrangement of folks, including an AI whom we soon gather is based on the personality of Callie’s ex. Elena’s memories of what happened on the system her ship had reached are critical as well – they seem to have encountered aliens unrelated to the Liars. Aliens who seem ready to forcefully modify the humans they encounter. Elena insists on trying to rescue her fellow crewmembers. And the tech Callie recovers on Elena’s ships seems gamechanging, and very scary – especially to the Liars.

The resolution turns on spectacular revelations about the nature of the Liars, and their true motivations, and about what Elena and her fellow crewmembers encountered as well. And the resolution is quite satisfying, and sets up some really interesting subsequent volumes. This will be at least a trilogy, I believe, with the next volume, The Dreaming Stars, due in 2018.

In summary, I have to say, I don’t have a strong preference for a winner of this award. I’d be happy with any of the three books I’ve read winning, and I trust that the other nominees are similarly good. All I can say is – do read these books! There are all both fund and intriguing.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

An Obscure Ace Double: The Winds of Gath, by E. C. Tubb/Crisis on Cheiron, by Juanita Coulson

Ace Double Reviews, 25: The Winds of Gath, by E. C. Tubb/Crisis on Cheiron, by Juanita Coulson (#H-27, 1967, $0.60)

One of my goals in this series of reviews is to cover at least one book by all the more prolific Ace Double Contributors. E. C. Tubb was one of these, with 12 "halves", that appeared in 11 separate books (one Ace Double consisted of a Tubb novel backed with a story collection), as well as 1 Ace Double reprint recombining two Tubb halves that were originally published separately. The Winds of Gath is about 50,000 words long. The other half, Juanita Coulson's Crisis on Cheiron, is perhaps 52,000 words.
(covers by Jerome Podwill (left) and Kelly Freas (right))

Tubb is a British writer, born 1919, died in 2010. He published something over 100 SF novels, and about as many short stories, under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. One pseudonym was the memorable "Volsted Gridban"! His best known pseudonym was probably "Gregory Kern", under which name he wrote the "Cap Kennedy" books for DAW in the early 70s. (I have not read any of that series.) But he is by far better known for his long series of novels about Earl Dumarest and his search for his lost home planet, Earth. These were published first by Ace, then by DAW, from 1967 through 1985, with a final book showing up only in 1997 from a small press (apparently having been published sometime earlier in France, and presumably having been rejected by DAW). This series runs to 32 books, of which I have read 25 or so. They constitute a rather guilty pleasure -- very formulaic, very repetitive, sometimes downright silly -- but I found them enjoyable mind candy.

The novel at hand, The Winds of Gath, is the first of the Dumarest novels. It opens with Earl Dumarest, a tough loner, probably about 40 years old. (His age is never specified, and doesn't seem to change. A rigorous timeline of the books and implied travel times and mentions of his past would, I'm guessing, imply an age of well over a century, but I don't think Tubb cared much about that sort of internal consistency.) Dumarest is revived from traveling "low" (i.e. in suspended animation, with a 15% risk of death -- something Dumarest defies countless times in the series) only to find that instead of the planet he intended to reach his ship was diverted to Gath at the whim of the powerful Matriarch of Kund. This is bad news for Dumarest, because he is out of money and Gath offers no good prospect of making enough money for passage to another world.

The Matriarch of Kund has come to Gath to listen to the famous winds blowing through a rock formation during a periodic storm: supposedly the rock formation allows hearers to hear almost anything they desire. She is accompanied by her ward, the lush and beautiful Seena Thoth, whom she may designate her successor, as well as by the Cyber Dyne, one of the red-cloaked Cyclan, castrated cybers with enormous analytical abilities.

Dumarest, after some death-defying adventures, stumbles into a staged fight with another nobleman's trained killer, and due to his incredible reflexes and his superior tactics, he wins, gaining the notice of the Matriarch. He and Seena establish a doomed relationship, as once Seena becomes Matriarch, she must forgo all lovers and the chance of children. Dumarest fends off an attempt on Seena's life, presumably by a jealous rival for the Matriarch's position, and he accompanies them to the rock formation to wait out the storm. And during the storm various plots and counterplots come to life, and Dumarest is fortuitously in a position to thwart the secret goals of the Cyber, and also to fend off certain other people with less than good intentions.

The novel introduces a number of ongoing themes and tropes of the series. There is an example passage describing the Cyber going into rapport with the greater Cybernetic mind, via the implanted "Homochon elements": a passage that Tubb pretty much cut-and-pasted into each of the Dumarest novels. There is Dumarest making money by fighting -- something that happens in at least half of the books. There is only a hint of the quest that will dominated much of the series: Dumarest's search for his lost home, though there is also a blatant hint of something important about Earth that I only figured out after reading several of the later books (I read those books I read in pretty much random order). The Cyclan, in this book, are not yet alerted to search for Dumarest, something that happens, as I recall, because of a discovery Dumarest makes in book 4, Kalin, so that subplot is not present.

It's not really one of the best of the Dumarest novels, in my opinion, turning on some really grossly silly pseudo-science -- not that Tubb ever bothered much with plausibility in that area. And the plot is a bit incoherent -- the ISFDB labels the British edition, entitled simply Gath, as a revision. I wonder if it's actually a restoration of the original text, and if this version is cut. Anybody know? Still and all, it's fast moving and has plenty of action -- on OK way to spend a couple of hours.

Juanita Coulson is a fannish legend. She and her husband, the late Robert "Buck" Coulson, edited the fanzine Yandro, which was nominated for a Hugo 10 years in a row, from 1958 through 1967, winning in 1965. (This made her one of the first women to win a Hugo, as far as I can tell: the only previous winners being Elinor Busby and Pat Lupoff, both also for fanzines co-edited with their husbands (I presume).) Juanita Coulson is also a very well-known filker. And she had published more than a dozen novels, and a number of short stories, beginning with "Another Rib", a collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley in which she used the pseudonym "John Jay Wells", which appeared in F&SF in 1963. (Robert Coulson himself published several novels and a few short stories, often in collaboration with Gene DeWeese.) Juanita Coulson's best-known novels are probably the Children of the Stars series, which as I recall was a family saga, published by Del Rey in the 1980s.

Crisis on Cheiron was Coulson's first novel, one of two Ace Doubles she wrote. Her other Ace Double, The Singing Stones, was also paired with an E. C. Tubb novel, Derai, the second Dumarest novel.

Crisis on Cheiron opens with Carl Race, a young ecologist for the Terran Survey, arriving at Cheiron, a planet newly opened to trade with Earth. The corporation controlling that trade, Consolidated Enterprises, has called in Carl and his boss, Donovan Petry, to investigate the sudden crop failures on Cheiron.

The natives of Cheiron are mostly friendly centaur-like people. But it soon becomes clear that there is a faction which may be under the influence of Consolidated's rival, the sneeringly evil Trans Galactic. And if things don't go better, the Ethnic Protection organization may shut down Cheiron altogether.

Race and Petry, with some help from a beautiful schoolteacher named Marcy de Laurent, and a precocious adolescent Cheironian named Nubi, quickly realize that the problem is that bees and butterflies have been disappearing, making pollinization impossible. But what could be causing that? Complicating matters is an 8 day deadline imposed by one of the Matriarchs of the Cheironians. (I note that both halves of this Double feature "Matriarchs".) There follows an attack of bees, nearly killing off all three humans, and a fire at Marcy's schoolhouse, and then Petry is murdered. Obviously, the villains, whoever they are, mean business.

Rather inexplicably, the authorities immediately decide that Race is guilty of murdering his boss. So he is forced to escape, with Marcy's help. Fortunately, he has a brilliant idea as to what the problem is, helped by Nubi's non-humans range of senses. The three are able to make their way to the lair of the villains ...

Well, you knew it would all work out well. It's fast-moving and kind of exciting, but at bottom it's a touch too silly. The central scientific notion is ludicrous. The villains are just too evull for words -- way over the top. And the plot is driven by implausibilities such as the authorities jumping to conclusions about Carl's guilt in killing his boss. Also, the budding romance between Carl and Marcy is hinted at but never developed, and at the end just sort of allowed to slide. I was happy to have read it, but it's pretty forgettable stuff.

A Classic Ace Double Pairing: Star Guard, by Andre Norton/Planet of No Return, by Poul Anderson

Ace Double Reviews, 27: Star Guard, by Andre Norton/Planet of No Return, by Poul Anderson (#D-199, 1956, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This Ace Double features an SFWA Grand Master writing each half. Noticing this, I decided to see how many Grand Masters wrote Ace Doubles. The answer is, most of them. Indeed, 18 of the 33 SFWA Grand Masters were featured in at least one "classic" Ace Double (i.e., the ones published between 1953 and 1973 in dos-a-dos fashion). (One of the others, Lester Del Rey, had a quasi Ace Double published in 1977.) The numbers were 18 of 30 when Samuel Delany became a Grand Master, and I'm pretty sure he'll be the last Ace Double writer to become a Grand Master. In my estimation the only remaining writer of the "Ace Double Generation" who might be named a Grand Master is Kate Wilhelm, and she never was in an Ace Double.

Three of the Grand Masters are also among the most prolific Ace Double writers: Andre Norton, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson. The other Ace Doubles I can find quickly to feature two different Grand Masters were #D-61, from 1954, L. Sprague de Camp's Cosmic Manhunt backed with Clifford Simak's Ring Around the Sun; and #D-110, from 1995, featuring Anderson's No World of Their Own backed with Isaac Asimov's The 1,000-Year Plan (yes, a retitling of Foundation).

Star Guard is the longest Ace Double half I have yet seen, at 68,000 words. It is a reprinting of a 1955 Harcourt, Brace hardcover. As with many Norton novels, a hardcover marketed to the Juvenile segment was followed by a paperback marketed to adults.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
The book opens with a brief prologue explaining that after reaching the stars humans encountered an existing Galactic civilization. The rulers of this civilization decided that humans were too aggressive for full membership, but that their aggression could be put to good use by making them mercenaries. Some mercenaries become "Mechs", who serve on relatively higher-tech worlds, using tanks, airplanes, blasters and such. Others become "Archs", who serve on low-tech worlds using swords and rifles.

The hero of this book is Kana Karr, a newly-hatched Arch specializing is "Alien Liaison". His first assignment is to the planet Fronn, taking one side of a dispute between twins over which is the rightful heir. But things go horribly wrong when someone armed with a blaster kills the twin Kana's group is backing. This is evidence of a rogue regiment of Mechs illegally operating on a low-tech planet.

When Kana's Horde (as they are called) tries to peacefully leave the planet, they find their escape routes blocked, and more treachery ends in the murder of the Horde's leaders. It is up to the survivors to make their way through the hostile outback of Fronn, dealing with natural obstacles such as the mountains, dangerous animals, and a weeks long storm; as well as more sophisticated obstacles presented by the three indigenous sentient species of the planet. Their goal is to report the rogue Mechs to the authorities, but as time goes on evidence mounts that this conspiracy way be more wide-ranging than they imagine.

It's pretty decent adventure SF. The aliens are fun in a classic 50s manner. The action is well-handled. The plot is twisty enough to hold the interest. The final resolution perhaps doesn't quite convince, but it is in its way satisfying, and it resolves this book's action while certainly leaving room for a sequel or sequels.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

Planet of No Return is about 33,000 words long. It is a reprint, unchanged as far as I can tell, of the serial "Question and Answer", which appeared in the June and July 1954 issues of Astounding. This story was written to be part of a Twayne Triplet. The Twayne Triplets were to be a series of collections of three novellas. Each book would be introduced by an article by a scientist, describing a world and a situation he had created. The three stories would all be set in that world. Thus it was, as far as I know, the first use of a concept which became the "Shared World", and which was later used for such anthologies as Medea: Harlan's World. (Although in the case of the Twayne Triplets, the stories would not be set in a common "future".) The first group of stories was called The Petrified Planet, and included pieces by H. Beam Piper, Fletcher Pratt, and Judith Merril. Some other stories were commissioned, for different worlds, but the only other Twayne Triplet to be published was Witches Three, featuring stories by Pratt, James Blish, and Fritz Leiber. Witches Three may not be a canonical Triplet anyway, as the stories included were not commissioned expressly for the series (for example, the Leiber story is Conjure Wife, from way back in 1943).
(Cover by Kelly Freas)

Isaac Asimov's "Sucker Bait", which had been serialized in Astounding earlier in 1954, was written for the same setup as "Question and Answer". (Other stories that were apparently written for other Twayne Triplet commissions were "Get Out of My Sky" by James Blish, "Second Landing" by Murray Leinster, and "First Cycle", an unfinished H. Beam Piper story that Michael Kurland completed in 1982. Blish's original "Case of Conscience" novelette may also have been intended for a Twayne Triplet.)

The basic setup is a binary star system with a twin planet at one of the Trojan points. The planet seems earthlike -- all other planets humans have found are either unsuitable for human use, or previously occupied. One expedition has been sent from Earth, and has failed to return. Now a second expedition is going. Anderson populates his ship with an ill-mixed mixture of men, and he portrays an expedition in financial peril, and facing apparent sabotage attempts. This is the last chance for Earth to finance a ship to another star system -- unless this expedition proves successful. But on arrival they find a native race, previously unsuspected. Is Earth's star travel doomed? or is this race willing to share? There is a bit of a twist ending, though really it's pretty easy to figure out what's actually going on. The story is a pretty good read, and Anderson spends some time contemplating the central "question" of his story -- is humanity ready for the stars? Not bad stuff.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Old Bestseller: Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, by Edwin L. Arnold

Old Bestseller: Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, by Edwin L. Arnold

a review by Rich Horton

(In a completely unplanned coincidence, this book was also covered by Jerry House as his contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books.)

This wasn't really an Old Bestseller, but it was a piece of popular fiction by a writer who wrote some goodselling novels. That said, at least according to Wikipedia, the failure of this novel to sell very well caused Arnold to cease writing. (Though John Clute points out that each of his books came out from a different publisher, with this last from quite an obscure house. (The other three came out from reasonably prominent firms.) This could well be an indication that each firm was not too pleased with sales.)

The other thing this book is is a once-forgotten, but fairly significant, work of proto-SF. It was rediscovered, it seems, by Richard Lupoff, a fine SF and mystery writer who is also an expert in comics and pulps -- and on Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Lupoff wrote a book called Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, which was first published in 1965 and has been reissued with additional material at least three times.) In 1963 he was the editor-in-chief of the hardcover reprint edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels, and when collector Stephen Takacs decided to sell his collection, he let Lupoff have a look at Lieut. Gullivar Jones, telling him it was a "Burroughs-type" novel. And, indeed, Lupoff upon reading it realized it was a direct ancestor of the John Carter novels, in featuring an American military man traveling by essentially magical means to Mars, encountering Martians of multiple races, and marrying a Princess. There seems little doubt that Burroughs read this novel, though it must be said that A Princess of Mars and its sequels are ultimately much different from the Arnold novel -- and, indeed, it must be said that Burroughs deserved his success, and that the failure of the Arnold novel, if not exactly deserved, is not much of a surprise.

Edwin Arnold (1857-1935) was the son of a poet, Sir Edwin Arnold (NOT Matthew!). He was English, of course. He had some success, it seems, with his first two novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician (1890) and Lepidus the Centurion: A Roman of Today (1901), both of which have fantastical aspects, mainly in the long lives of their protagonists. Lieut. Gullivar Jones appeared in 1905. Though there were other works set on Mars before it, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls it the first true planetary romance.

The novel was first published by S C Brown, Langham and Co., and in the US by George Bell and Sons. Lupoff suggested to Don Wollheim at Ace Books that he republish it (Burroughs was having something of a revival at the time. due to Lupoff's efforts to some extent). Ace published the paperback in 1964, Wollheim choosing the corrupted title Gulliver of Mars (note the misspelled first name). The cover is by Frank Frazetta. Since then it seems to have remained to a small extent in people's memories, aided by a comic book series (one of the writers of which was George Alec Effinger), by a New English Library paperback in 1977, by a Bison Books reprint in 2003, and even by the appearance of Gullivar Jones (along with John Carter) in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My copy is a rather shabby example of the Ace edition that I found in a quite nice used book store in Tempe, AZ, run by a former Arizona State Professor and his wife, with whom I had a nice talk.

Spoilers abound ahead, though I really don't think this is a book that depends for its effects on plot.

As for the book itself, I have to admit I found it slow going at times. Gullivar Jones is a Lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, upset at not having received the promotion he feels he deserves (and thus unable to ask his Polly to marry him). In a bad mood, he by happenstance is on hand when a strange man falls to the ground wrapped in a carpet and breaks his neck. Jones ends up with the carpet, and, feeling terribly used by, wishes himself on Mars. At which point the carpet wraps him up and takes him there.

On Mars Jones falls in with a race of beautiful but terminally lazy people. His first friend is named An -- an androgynous person who turns out to be a woman, one of a race of slaves who thus cannot have children. An takes him eventually to the palace -- and tells him that a special ceremony is due, whereby the non-slaves draw lots to determine who they will marry. Jones spies the Princess Heru and falls desperately in love with her. (Alas for An, who seems all along a more worthy person.) Heru requites his passion, and arranges to fix the lottery so that Gullivar will become her husband. However, this race, which Jones calls the Hither people, are under the domination of another race, the Thither people, who demand a tribute each year, of among other things a beautiful woman to become their King's slave. Naturally, Heru is chosen and taken away.

Jones attempts to follow, and ends up on a desperate boat trip across a sea to the Thither land. By happenstance he ends up instead on the river (or canal) of the Dead (one of the more striking passages in the book), and upon escaping, falls in with some of the Thither people, finding them, on balance, much better people (harder working, more energetic) than Heru's people. He is taken by them for a ghost, and he manages, with a couple more adventures on the way, to make his way to King Ar-Hap's city. Here he demands Heru's return to him -- but a crisis intervenes in the shape of a slow meteor (don't ask!). Eventually he steals Heru away and escapes back to her people -- but Ar-Hap follows, and all seems lost.

Well, Gullivar Jones lands on his feet, and gets back to Earth and Polly -- and I suppose Heru turns out as well as she might have expected to also. And what of An? Well, neither we nor Gullivar ever find out.

Much of this is fairly light satire. Gullivar Jones isn't really much of a hero -- he's a bit obtuse, and he's not terribly successful at most of his adventures. Jayme Lynn Blaschke points out that the Hither and Thither folk seem based on Wells' Eloi and Morlocks (absent the cannibalism). As I said, I found it tedious at times, though there are some good bits as well. I'm glad to have read it, if mostly for historical reasons.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Some Thoughts on two celebrated Black Mirror episodes

(I'd posted this on Facebook, and I've migrated it here for something a bit more permanent.)

Some thoughts on the two most celebrated (as far as I can tell) episodes of BLACK MIRROR ("San Junipero" and "U.S.S. Callister"). First thing is -- yes, I enjoyed them both, especially "U.S.S. Callister". But, I have some quibbles wtih the reactions I've seen to both, in one case on moral grounds, in the other simply a feeling that the story is a bit overpraised... I'll expand after some
Ok, "U.S.S. Callister". As those who have seen it know, the episode is about a creepy technology officer for a company that has created a really impressive virtual game space. He -- who has been cheated by his partner, and who is a useless loser with women -- has created a private version of the game space, modelling it on a show obviously based on STAR TREK, and he has created versions of a number of his fellow workers (using their DNA via some unconvincing magic tech) and imprisoned them in that game space eternally. The women are creepily "enhanced" for, apparently, his sexual excitement (though no one has genitals -- his hangups obviously include fear of actual sex), the men are humiliated, any of them are changed into monsters if they cross certain lines.

OK, so far so good. This guy is pretty creepy (though his worst "real life" sin seems to be that he is "too starey" at times), and what he has done to the virtual copies of his co-workers -- "copies" which are conscious and feeling and, and which change based on their "virtual"experiences -- is horrible, and deserves punishment. And, a punishment is devised -- his virtual copy is enslaved in some sort of isolated bubble universe, while (most of the) rest of the crew is freed to the open network, on a version of the starship that might be able to do real cool stuff.

What's the problem? Well, the real life version of the bad guy, as far as I can tell, is essentially murdered. (He's stuck linked into the game space, can't get out, and so will die of thirst/starvation in a little while.) And nobody seems to care. What he needs is some psychological treatment. Murder seems a long step too far.

That moral objection aside -- and I should note that the episode itself doesn't necessarily endorse his murder -- viewers, I think, are supposed to notice what's been done, and check their own reactions.-- the whole thing is very well done, and the final jump into a virtual space that seems like a fun and expansive universe is pretty cool.

Now, "San Junipero". The title space, which strongly resembles Santa Cruz (as hinted by the movie poster for LOST BOYS in the opening scene) is actually a virtual space, where people can visit for a few hours a week; and where people who are dying can upload themselves and presumably live forever. That's a fine idea, but it's a VERY OLD idea, treated in too many SF stories to enumerate. There are obvious issues to consider, and they've been considered, again and again. In this episode, the central story is about two people, a Lesbian woman who we eventually learn has been confined to a hospital bed for decades after she became paralyzed in an accident resulting partly from her parents' terrible reaction to her coming out; and a bisexual woman who had had a long happy marriage to a man who had objections to "passing over" -- being uploaded in San Junipero. This woman -- Kelly -- resists the other woman's plea to join her in San Junipero after she -- after both of them -- die.

The thing is, the objections to uploading are given very short shrift. And San Junipero -- to my mind -- is portrayed as a very shallow place. All you can do there is go to bars, have sex, and drive cars too fast (because after all you won't die permanently if you crash). Doesn't that seem like kind of a thin life? And don't the 20 year old bodies everyone has seem kind of a cliche?

Mind you, I still liked the episode, and thought it very slickly done, very well executed. But kind of shallow.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

We finally saw Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri yesterday. This is the much praised new film by Martin McDonagh. This is McDonagh's third feature film. We saw the first two: In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). (Thanks to our son Geoff for pointing us at In Bruges.) Those films, particularly In Bruges, were both excellent -- twisty and blackly funny and intelligent and involving. Three Billboards is also brilliant -- indeed, it's his best film, I think. It can be described in the same terms I used above except it's not twisty -- and it is emotionally stunning in a way the first two films really aren't.

Some of this is acting. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. McDormand is getting tremendous Oscar buzz, and she deserves it, but one shouldn't slight Harrelson and Rockwell, who are both exceptional. (I should mention that McDormand and Rockwell, in particular, are two of my favorite actors.)

The story is in its way fairly simple. McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered some months prior to the film's action. The crime is unsolved, and she decides to put up a series of billboards near the murder site, stating: "Raped While Dying"/"Still No Arrests"/"How Come, Chief Willoughby?". Her grief and rage are understandable, but her placement of blame is utterly unfair -- the police department has done their best (possibly somewhat limited by small town resources), but the crime is simply one of those that may be beyond resolution.

The story turns more on the local reaction to the billboards, which is mostly negative -- indeed, as much an overreaction as Mildred's blame of Chief Willoughby. Willoughby (played by Harrelson) is an honorable man, with a beautiful Australian (?) wife and two young daughters. And he's dying of cancer. His reaction to the billboards is composed partly of anger at Mildred's unfair criticism of him, but it's blended with compassion for her situation, and a lot of tolerance for her actions (which include some outright criminality). The rest of the town is less forgiving, harassing her teenaged son, harassing her African American boss -- and her dentist even tries to pull her teeth without novacaine. The hostility extends to the advertising firm that rented her the billboard space. Mildred's husband, who had left her for a 19-year-old not long before Angela's murder, is also upset at her -- for a constellation of reasons that go beyond the billboards, of course, and that intersect in ways that cause intense guilt in both of them -- Mildred especially.

I haven't mentoned the imost important character besides Mildred -- Jason Dixon (played by Rockwell) -- a frankly and violently racist cop. Willoughby doesn't approve of his actions, and reins him in when he can, but seems a step too tolerant, too sure he can bring out the good he's convinced Dixon has in him. But we learn, over time, that Dixon is a loser six ways from Sunday -- with the help of his quite awful mother. It's obvious that he takes out his personal shortcomings on anyone he can -- and somehow, between the writing and Rockwell's acting, we feel a bit for him -- even though we cheer his (much earned) downfall.

The movie has a couple of turning points -- an intensely moving development in Willoughby's life -- terrible crimes committed by both Jason Dixon and Mildred Hayes (in both case somewhat unpunished, at least by the justice system) -- and what seems a promising break in the Angela Hayes case. But it doesn't offer any easy answers, nor any real redemption or cathartic resolution. We are, it seems, urged to cheer for Mildred, but it becomes clear that she is essentially broken, simply too obsessed with revenge, and too willing to let her obsession smash anyone around her -- the basically good, like Willoughby and like her son; and the not so good, like Dixon and her ex-husband. Dixon is even more broken, and with less reason, but they end up literally in the same place, looking for someone to take their hate and anger out on who just might deserve it.

Are there faults? Of course there are. The biggest fault, I think, is the unconvincing portrayal of (fictional) Ebbing, Missouri. I'm a Missourian, so maybe I notice more -- but the location doesn't look like Missouri. (I would guess it's supposed to be set in the Ozarks, in a town maybe like Dexter or perhaps more like West Plains.) That's a nitpick (I believe the movie was shot in North Carolina, and it does look like that). But otherwise the town doesn't quite hold together -- the High School looks too big, the police station too small and old. There's a point where Dixon tries to explain to his Mother why white people can't just order blacks around like they used to -- "The South has changed", he says. But no one from Missouri would call it part of "the South". None of these faults really harm the overall movie -- but they do make it clear that it was written and directed by an Irishman who has possibly not even been to the state.

One thing that's really important in movies is music, and the music here is wonderful. (The music was coordinated by the great Carter Burwell, probably best known for his work with the Coen Brothers.) Best of all is the song that both opens and closes the movie: "Buckskin Stallion Blues", one of the incomparable Townes Van Zandt's greatest songs. The opening version is Van Zandt's original, the closing version is a lovely cover by a singer I had not known of before, but will listen to more now, Amy Annelle.

Bottom line: this is a wonderful, wrenching, movie. It had me in helpless tears at least twice. Granting that I haven't seen all the most praised movies of the year, I have this at the top of my list of 2017 movies (though The Shape of Water is pretty darn close).

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Social Secretary, by David Graham Phillips

Old Bestseller: The Social Secretary, by David Graham Phillips

a review by Rich Horton

Sometimes the author's life story is far more interesting (and shocking!) than the events of their novels. So it is with David Graham Phillips, who was murdered, at the age of 43, by a man who thought one of Phillips' characters was based on his sister, in a libelous fashion. (The killer then committed suicide.)

David Graham Phillips was another of a long string of influential and popular novelists from Indiana who were active around the turn of the 20th Century. (Others include Booth Tarkington, Meredith Nicholson, Charles Major, George Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, and Theodore Dreiser.) Phillips was born in 1867. After college (Asbury College in Indiana (now DePauw) and then Princeton) he worked as a journalist in Cincinnati before moving to New York. He had much success in this field, and was considered one of the important "muckrakers", notably publishing an article called "The Treason of the Senate", which was one impetus for the eventual passing of the 17th amendment, which allowed for direct election of Senators. His first novel, The Great God Success (1901) sold well enough that he quit his newspaper position and concentrated on freelance investigative journalism as well as novels. He eventually published over 20, written over about a decade. It seems that most of them dealt with significant social issues, particularly the social and economic position of women. (He never married, living with his sister Carolyn until his death in 1911. She prepared his last novels for publication, and I wonder if she had a hand in writing them.) His most famous novel might be Susan Lenox, not published until 1917, which concerns a prostitute.
(Cover by Clarence F. Underwood)

In this context The Social Secretary seems an outlier. It is very short (about 25,000 words) and very light. It was published in 1905 by the Indianapolis firm of Bobbs, Merrill, though my copy is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint, from about the same time. It is illustrated by Clarence F. Underwood, with "decorations" by Ralph Fletcher Seymour. (I am not quite sure what the "decorations" are meant to be, unless that's a credit for the design of the book.)

The story is told via the supposed diary entries of Augusta (Gus) Talltowers, a young woman of a very good Washington, D.C. family that has fallen on hard times. Forced to get a job, she becomes the social secretary for Mrs. Burke, the wife of a new Senator from a Western State. The Burkes are relatively uncultured, "common", and Gus determines to use her knowledge of the social ways of DC, along with the Burkes' money, to establish them in society, to the political benefit of Mr. Burke.

Along the way Gus takes very much to Mrs. Burke -- "Ma" as she insists on being called. Gus doesn't take as easily to Bucyrus Burke, the eligible and appropriately aged scion of the family, though her friends try to persuade her to set her cap for him -- he'll have enough money to solve her family's financial problems. But "Cyrus" just seems silly to Gus. Gus has a suitor of her own, a Colonel Lafollette, but she finds him boring. She is more interested in the impoverished Robert Gunton, a friend of the Burkes.

However, as Gus's efforts on behalf of the Burkes are a smashing success, Robert falls for Nadezhda, the dangerous sister of the Ambassador of an Eastern European nation (no name given, I suppose "Ruritania" will do). A mild diplomatic incident is threatened. Also, Ma Burke has something of a nervous collapse from too much partying. And somehow Cyrus seems less annoying than he had ...

Well, of course, all works out swimmingly. Robert Gunton's masterly ways tame Nadezhda and charm her family. Ma Burke pulls through just fine. And Cyrus finally figures out how to properly court Gus. It's a very slight book, pleasant enough but really a bit less fun than I had really hoped. It is worth noting that besides the romance plot there is a bit of neep about the social world -- and how that affected the politics -- in Washington at that time -- it's minor stuff, but it's of some interest.