• Serial Review: The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson (Part 3/3)

    (Cover by Howard V. Brown. Astounding, July 1938.)

    Who Goes There?

    Almost like chameleon, Jack Williamson blended in enough with his surroundings during his long career, from his debut in 1928 to his death in 2006, having work published in Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, and other publications across a span of 78 years. While he is most known today for his novelette “With Folded Hands…,” truly one of the most haunting stories ever written about man’s relationship with robots, Williamson wrote a great deal of notable science fiction and fantasy. On top of his fiction, Williamson also pioneered the study of SF in academia, having earned his M.A. in the ’50s and writing a respectable thesis on the SF of H. G. Wells. Williamson remains the oldest (as far as I can tell) person to win a Hugo, having won the Hugo for Best Novella with his 2000 story “The Ultimate Earth,” which became part of his novel Terraforming Earth.

    Williamson was the last of the Campbellian authors, even outliving other incredibly long-lived persons like L. Sprague de Camp and A. E. van Vogt (though van Vogt spent the last decade or so with Alzheimer’s), but more impressively, he was the last of the Gernsbackian authors. Having encompassed and taken part in virtually all of 20th century SFF, Williamson’s contribution to the field is nigh-incalculable.

    Placing Coordinates

    The final part of The Legion of Time appeared in the July 1938 issue of Astounding, which is on the Archive. This particular issue of Astounding is quite interesting. We have the final part of Williamson’s novel, but we also have “Rule 18” by Clifford Simak, the story which marked his return to writing SF (this time he would not look back), and which would win him a Retro Hugo. There’s Ross Rocklynne’s “The Men and the Mirror,” being an early example of what we’d now call hard SF. Then we have L. Ron Hubbard’s SFF debut, “The Dangerous Dimension,” marking the beginning of one of SFF’s great pulp adventure writers long before he became one of SFF’s great villains. To cap things off we get one of L. Sprague de Camp’s most memorable essays, “Language for Time Travelers,” which even got a follow-up essay from Willy Ley titled “Geography for Time Travelers.” All around this is an impressive issue, and I’m actually surprised it doesn’t get cited more often as being at least historically notable.

    Enhancing Image

    Since Part 3 is basically like the third act of a movie, in which the action comes to a head, it’ll be hard to keep the spoiler and non-spoiler sections separate, but I’ll try.

    At the end of Part 2, Dennis Lanning and best buddy Barry Halloran had made it into the depths of Sorainya’s fortress, finding a black brick containing the object whose presence determines whether Jonbar or Gyronchi come into being, only to be trapped when Soraniya appears out of thin air. But that’s okay! The Chronion, the time ship which Lanning and Halloran had been rescued by before, manifests and comes to the rescue once again. We get a deus ex machina in the first five pages, which is whatever, but of course Our Heroes™ are far from out of the woods yet, as they have two objectives now: to return the mysterious object to its proper time, and to defeat Sorainya. With the help of former college friend and current mad scientist Wilmot McLan, Lanning takes the brick and escapes Sorainya’s wrath for the time being. Now, the question becomes: Where and when does this object go and what even is it? The object turns out to be a magnet, nothing special in itself, but it’s where and when the object is supposed to be that things get interesting.

    The question burning in his eyes. Banning whispered: “Did you find—anything?”

    Solemnly, the old man nodded, and Banning listened breathlessly. 

    “The time is an afternoon in August of the year 1921,” whispered Wil McLan. “The broken geodesics of Jonbar had already given us a clue to that. And I have found the place, with the chronoscope.”

    Banning gripped his arm. “Where?”

    “It’s a little valley in the Ozarks of Arkansas. But I’ll show you the decisive scene.”

    Arkansas, 1921. We meet a character who, it turns out, serves as the turning point for the story, despite not (as far as I recall) having a single line of dialogue. John Barr (get it, John Barr, Jobar…) is a twelve-year-old kid in 1921, but depending on whether he finds that magnet by happenstance or not he’ll go on to either become a revolutionary scientist or a still capable but unambitious good-for-nothing. We by now know why it’s vastly preferred for Barr to cause the existence of Jonbar than for his lack of action to cause the existence of Gyronchi so we don’t need much of an explanation beyond who Barr is in the first place. If you’ve been following things then you’ll remember that time travel in Williamson’s novel is based on probability, as opposed to predetermined futures, and it’s a sneaky way for Williamson to throw in this last-minute rally for the good guys so that the event of Sorainya stealing the magnet can be corrected. It raises the question, of course, of why Sorainya would keep the magnet locked away in a tiny vault and not, say, simply destroy the thing, but we’re not here to think about that.

    I suppose you could poke a ton of holes in the narrative, but Williamson moves the action along so quickly that the reader is not incentivized to dwell on the story’s mechanics—a tried and true way to get over spotty exposition. Williamson would take the inventiveness apparent in The Legion of Time and fine-tune it for his remarkable werewolf novella “Darker Than You Think,” but he unquestionably set the standard for time war narratives with his earlier effort. Interestingly, while many novels (especially time-spanning ones) broaden in scope as they approach the climax, The Legion of Time shrinks, furthering a great shrinkage of scope that had occurred in Part 2. John Barr isn’t a character so much as a plot device with legs, and since Lethonee had “died” early in Part 2 and Our Heroes™ don’t fix things until towards the end of the final installment she’s also basically a non-factor here. If Sorainya is far more thoroughly characterized than Lethonee it has partly to do with the fact that she gets a lot more time on the page. I think it’s also because deep down we prefer the whore over the Madonna, which I suspect Williamson thinks as well; more on that later.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The final fight with Soraniya is epic, brutal, and approaches some pretty weird and grotesque territory. While the solution for dealing with Sorainya is stupid (and makes McLan look like even more of a fool than he’s supposed to be), the result is quite… something. A dying McLan rolls a tube Lanning’s way as he’s also on his last leg, his fight with Sorainya not going in his favor, and tells Lanning to smash it, which he does. The tube, filled with a mysterious liquid, is connected to Soraniya’s past and how she was supposed to die young from a plague, only to be saved by the giant ants with an antedote. Once the tube breaks, Soraniya’s past is rewritten and she dies in a remarkably gruesome fashion. Why didn’t McLan use this much sooner……? Still, get a load of this:

    The bright blade slipped out of her hand, rang against the dome, and fell at Lanning’s feet. The smile was somehow frozen on her face, forgotten, lifeless. Then, in a fractional second, her beauty was—erased. 

    Her altered face was blind, hideous, pocked with queerly bluish ulcerations. Her features dissolved—frightfully—in blue corruption. And Lanning had an instant’s impression of a naked skull grinning fearfully out of the armor.

    And then Sorainya was gone.

    Lanning and Halloran are FOR THE LAST TIME rescued once the battle is over and Our Heroes™ are brought to the now-existing Jonbar where they can spend the rest of their days, since they’re not allowed to return to their own time periods. You can imagine my shock when the futuristic machinery that literally brought Lanning and Halloran back from the dead was not able to save the severely injured McLan.

    But aside from that it’s a happy ending! The future is saved, and Lanning even gets his beloved back—only… Lethonee is not exactly as she was before. Their reunion is described ambiguously, but it seems that Lethonee and Soraniya were, in fact, the same person, or rather extensions of the same germ of a person. The resurrected Lethonee seems to have Sorainya’s voice and is even dressed in red, although her memories of Lanning were not erased. While the twist of Jombar and Gyronchi being the same place, made only different by circumstance, is predictable, the implied twist of Lethonee and Soraniya now being combined into a woman who bears Lethonee’s name but who also shares traits from both women is a far more curious choice. True, the whorish warrior queen is no more, but then so is the saintly love interest as well, and in a way it’s a shame that we get nothing like an epilogue for this story. Still, the ambiguity with Lethonee reuniting with her shadow counterpart borders on Lynch levels of surrealism and I’m here for it.

    A Step Farther Out

    Did The Legion of Time fumble the ball in the final installment? Maybe a little bit, but I still find it pretty memorable. Williamson pulls a deus ex machina or two, and pulls technobabble out of his ass to explain why some things happen and other things don’t, but the action which takes up the bulk of the installment is engrossing, the scope feels so epic despite actually being so compressed, and the very end gave me food for thought. I’m not sure if Williamson was consciously aware of what he writing the whole time, of what he meant by this or that, but it’s a pulp narrative that has a good deal more substance to it than one might expect. Williamson’s background as a Gernsbackian writer as well as a regular contributor to Weird Tales reveals itself in the brisk pacing and technobabble, but most importantly a willingness to get his hands dirty that would become largely unseen in Campbell’s Astounding, once that magazine under that editor further established its own voice. The result is a novel that feels both of its time and very much out of step, showing that Williamson was indeed one of the most capable of substantive genre authors of that era.

    In the ’60s there was a very short-lived but prescient journal called SF Horizons, run by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, and the most well-known essay from that journal was about The Legion of Time, titled “Judgment at Junbar.” Aldiss supposedly makes an argument for Williamson’s novel as an excellent work of pulp fiction—I say “supposedly” because I haven’t been able to read the damn thing yet. I have, however, read parts of Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree, in which he calls The Legion of Time a delight but also “philosophically meaningless,” an assertion I don’t think I can agree with. Then again, Aldiss is eloquent and thoughtful as usual, even when he’s being disagreeable (which he often is), and you can bet I’ll get to him at a later date.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

    (Cover by Tomasz Maronski. Asimov’s, March 2008.)

    Who Goes There?

    Elizabeth Bear is one of the bright stars in recent SFF, having made her debut in 2003 and being nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer twice, winning the second time. Unusually prolific as both a novelist and short story writer, Bear arguably anticipated the resurgance of magazine SFF in the 2010s, being associated with Asimov’s Science Fiction and more recently with Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine. Her 2007 short story “Tideline” won the Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and it still reads like one of the great modern fables of SFF. Only a year after winning her first Hugo, she would win another one with the subject of today’s review, “Shoggoths in Bloom,” and if that title alone doesn’t radiate enough Lovecraft energy for ya…

    She’s very much active on Twitter, in case you’re wondering. She really speaks for herself, and so does her work. On top of her award-winning novels and short works, she also won multiple Hugos as a co-host for SF Squeecast, which sadly is no longer active. Her latest novel, The Origin of Storms, was released by Tor earlier this year.

    Placing Coordinates

    “Shoggoths in Bloom” is pretty easy to find; for one, it was first published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov’s, which you can find free on the Archive. It’s also been reprinted in two major best-of anthologies, those being The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three by Jonathan Strahan and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2009 by Rich Horton. A more niche but certainly just as appropriate anthology would be New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran, which, as you can expect, tackles weird fiction (not necessarily horror fiction, though a lot of it would be). If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Bear and/or wanna play this reprint game on Hard Mode then may I suggest The Best of Elizabeth Bear? It’s a fat fucking book collecting Bear’s greatest short works, being a fancy hardcover from Subterranean Press—and yes, it’s a limited edition, which means you’re looking at a thick price point on eBay. Is it worth it? Perhaps.

    Enhancing Image

    Paul Harding is a black professor from a historically black college. The year is 1938. November. It gets cold, especially in New England, where Harding is now—in Maine, to be more exact, the land of Stephen King, and a land of the shoggoths. The story takes place in an alternate timeline (which, as we’ll see, is mostly the same as ours) where shoggoths are real; not just real, but biologically plausible, seen, studied like other animals. Now you may be wondering, if you’re not familiar with Lovecraft or the Cthulhu mythos: What the hell is a shoggoth? It’s not an overpowering cosmic lord like the Old Ones, but rather it’s an esoteric lifeform that seems harmless, unless you make the mistake of getting in its way. A shoggoth, physically, is like a massive jellyfish, or a man o’ war without the stingy bits. Huge blobs that seem to spend all day submerged or basking in water, and Harding arrives in time to catch the shoggoths “mating,” which is of course inaccurate because the shoggoths don’t seem to copulate.

    Harding is in Maine to study the shoggoths.

    We’re not given the date of November 1938 at first, but we quickly get the impression that the story takes place sometime between the two World Wars, with Harding himself being a World War I veteran. There are basically two threads weaved through this story, and I have to admit I think one was more convincingly executed than the other, though I may be biased. The first is the nature of the shoggoths, which, despite being technically prehistoric (they’ve been on Earth for millions of years, as shown through the scant fossil record), may as well be aliens—but well-characterized aliens, not the bug-eyed monsters of yore. The second is the rather odd game Bear plays with the fact that this story is recursive; it’s a story published in 2008, set in 1938, and sort of written like it could’ve been published in the late ’30s or early ’40s if not for a couple things. I’m reminded of Brian Aldiss’s equally recursive novella “The Saliva Tree,” which also takes some cues from Lovecraft but instead combines them with late 19th century Wellsian SF, even being written like a late Victorian SF tale.

    I’m not sure how much the second thread works, but I’ll elaborate on that in a moment; for now we have some on-the-nose dramatic irony to deal with. See, we’re at a point where we’re not quite a year away from the Nazi invasion of Poland, and even at the time the potential Nazi threat was no secret, though many Americans (some well-meaning, some not) wanted no part in it. Even so, Harding really wants to remind us that war is coming absolutely 100% for sure no doubt about it, and it can be a touch grating. Take this passage, for instance, which does a fine job at giving us some of Harding’s backstory but which also insists on this point; keep also in mind that this is not directly Harding telling us, but rather info being filtered through the all-seeing third-person narrator:

    Harding catches his breath. It’s beautiful. And deceptively still, for whatever the weather may be, beyond the calm of the bay, across the splintered gray Atlantic, farther than Harding—or anyone—can see, a storm is rising in Europe.

    Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and bed, and stayed on with the Union army after.

    Like his grandfather, Harding was a soldier. He’s not a historian, but you don’t have to be to see the signs of war.

    There has to be some kind of way to integrate the two more seamlessly. Indeed, regarding Harding’s own position as a black man in ’30s America, even in a more “civilized” place like New England, Bear does a better job I think. There are only two characters who really matter in this story, those being Harding and a local fisherman named Burt. Burt, we find out after the opening scene, is a bit of a racist; he’s not exactly hostile towards Harding, but his discomfort is very unsubtle, though ultimately he comes off as far more pitiful than monstrous. Come to think of it, this is a rare case of a short story that could possibly benefit from a larger cast, since for much of it Harding is stuck by himself, with his own thoughts about the impending war and the mystery of the shoggoths. Maybe not even enlarge the cast to make Harding less lonely, but change the mode of narration to first-person so that we get a more intimate relationship with our protagonist. Telling the story in the historical present tense makes sense from a certain angle, as it’s like we’re being transported back to an ongoing but slightly different 1938, but it also creates a sense of detachment with regards to Harding, who’s supposed to be a character we’re to empathize with.

    Sorry I’m getting caught up in this. Let me switch back to what the story does best, which is with the shoggoths. Now, I wasn’t sure going into it if it was going to be horror-tinged (not new territory for Bear by any means) or if it was gonna be something else, and to my pleasant surprise it was the latter. The shoggoths, despite their elusive nature and possible threat (they’re said to be able to devour a man whole), are not treated by Harding or Bear as movie monsters; they’re treated like animals, even if they’re weird animals; they’re written as being hardly less natural than a giant squid or the many deep-sea creatures which strike us as totally alien. Speaking of totally alien, the fossil record for shoggoths is so scant because shoggoths seem incapable of dying, or at least they seem to be extraordinarily long-lived.

    Like the Maine lobster to whose fisheries they return to breed, shoggoths do not die of old age. It’s unlikely that they would leave fossils, with their gelatinous bodies, but Harding does find it fascinating that to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever seen a dead shoggoth.

    Whereas Lovecraft writes about the shoggoths and other such creatures with digust to the point of hysterics, Bear takes genuine interest in them. Aside from being readable, unlike Lovecraft (who too often strikes me as borderline unreadable), Bear’s prose is snappy, disciplined in its vocabulary, and not at all concerned with giving the reader the thorough impression of something that supposedly can’t be comprehended. The shoggoths, with their mysterious “mating” rituals and their pseudo-eggs (Harding collects a few of those, and why not), can possibly (if improbably) be understood, and that’s what Harding tries to do. Despite echoing Lovecraft with just its title, “Shoggoths in Bloom” does not read like Lovecraft at all; rather it reads far more like a different kind of pulp narrative from the last ’30s, by someone who maybe doesn’t have a thesaurus on their nightstand but who is not prone to manhandling the English language like Lovecraft is; it reads in parts, actually, a good deal like A. E. van Vogt.

    Van Vogt is not a household name anymore—not even among the hardcore SFF readership, and this is tragic for reasons I’ll get to at a later date, but for now I’ll say that Bear’s briskness and economy of description—most importantly her flirting with the endless world of the subconscious—remind me of van Vogt. “Shoggoths in Bloom” reads partly like one of those dreams you have that you wouldn’t describe as a nightmare but which you would also hesitate to describe as pleasant; it’s the kind of dream that makes you feel a certain strange way as you start your morning routine and the faint etchings of that dream have not totally left your mind. Van Vogt was a master at conveying such a dream, or what Joseph Conrad called “the dream sensation,” by way of science fictional imagery, and Bear does such a thing here as well. The heart of the conflict has to do with Harding’s mind, his case of conscience, his psyche, and it’s another reason why I feel an opportunity was lost by not making the narration first-person.

    You may be wondering: What do the shoggoths have to do with the impending war in Europe? Hell, what do the shoggoths have to do with Harding’s own background as a man who’s had to deal with persecution all his life? These are certainly disparate elements, especially for a story that only goes on for 15 pages. And that’s where we get to spoilers, and also where we get to the climax of the story, where I’d say the story shines brightest and Bear’s thesis comes through most clearly.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The shoggoths turn out to be even weirder than first suspected. Harding not only finds that these creatures are effectively immortal, but that they don’t mate at all; they don’t even reproduce in any normal sense. The shoggoth is revealed to be a self-perpetuating animal, being able to live for centuries via mutation, and unless killed is apparently incapable of dying. The shoggoth acts as its own parents, encompassing whole generations on its own, and sure, that sounds possibly a little nightmarish, but the shoggoth is not a nightmarish creature; no, it is, like Burt, mostly a creature of pity. Whereas in most cases a creature like the shoggoth would become a thing of horror, something that would be nigh-impossible to kill and which is theoretically capable of taking over the planet, here the shoggoth is pitiful because it has no choice—quite literally. An accident while on the water leads Harding to come face to face with death, only to be saved by shoggoths, in a way he could not have possibly expected.

    Harding finds that the shoggoths are capable of at least mimicing humanlike intelligence; they speak to him, telepathically, in his own language. The shoggoths are prehistoric, true, but they were not the only esoteric beings to roam the earth, as they are in fact an artificial race, created by a much more intelligent, much more advanced race, one which has left no trace of itself but which was apparently unable to adapt to Earth’s changing climate. The shoggoths project images into Harding’s mind and somehow he’s able to understand, or at least is able to make an educated guess about the shoggoths’ incredibly long history. The shoggoths are a slave race without a master (indeed the creator race are called the Masters), their programming so perfect that they literally have no choice but to take orders; in that way they’re like organic robots.

    The shoggoths were engineered. And their creators had not permitted them to think, except for at their bidding. The basest slave may be free inside his own mind—but not so the shoggoths. They had been laborers, construction equipment, shock troops. They had been dread weapons in their own selves, obedient chattel. Immortal, changing to suit the task of the moment.

    This selfsame shoggoth, long before the reign of the dinosaurs, had built structures and struck down enemies that Harding did not even have names for. But a coming of the ice had ended the civilization of the Masters, and left the shoggoths to retreat to the fathomless sea while warmblooded mammals overran the earth. There, they were free to converse, to explore, to philosophize and build a culture. They only returned to the surface, vulnerable, to bloom.

    I’m not saying Bear actively took inspiration from van Vogt (she told me she had not read van Vogt in a long time), but I have to admit that this whole climax reminds me strongly of van Vogt. Not just the telepathy, which is a given, but how Harding finds a kindred spirit in the shoggoths, not unlike the human protagonist pitying the shape-shifting and misshapen creature in van Vogt’s “The Vault of the Beast.” But whereas van Vogt’s alien dies lamenting that it only wanted to become more human, Bear’s shoggoths come close to humanity in a different way—being ordered, or rather taught, how to be closer to mankind. Harding, being a surrogate master, orders the shoggoths (who are perfectly obedient) to think for themselves, and to tell other shoggoths about their supposed newfound freedom of choice. Normally I would object to the paradoxical notion of conditioning someone to think for themselves (I gave Heinlein shit for this in my review of If This Goes On—), it feels more justified with a non-human being that was made explicitly to take orders.

    Also bringing things full circle is for Harding to make his own choice with regards to the war he sees coming in plain sight. Harding is not in love with his own country, and his experiences from World War I left him bitter, but he wants to fight the Nazis, to the stop the violent persecution of European Jews and other minorities. Rather than wait for the US to come out of its neutral stance and to fight in a segregated military anyway, Harding resigns from his post and leaves the country to join the French Foreign Legion. He considers, briefly, ordering the shoggoths to fight the Nazis for him, but he also comes to the (correct, in my opinion) conclusion that it wouldn’t be right to keep a race of intelligent beings in servitude, even if it’s for a noble cause. Darkness is about to engulf Europe, but there’s at least hope on a personal level, with Harding seemingly having resolved his own moral hangup and a small number of shoggoths maybe going out spreading the word to their brethren—the wonderful word that they no longer be slaves.

    Admittedly I was not fond of the ending at first. The dilemma with the shoggoths and their mental slavery seemed too easily resolved, and the very end came on quick, with Harding (who is not exactly a young man anymore) heading off to take up the gun once again. I do think, however, that the ending becomes more textured and nuanced upon further inspection. Sure, there’s the dramatic irony of Harding going to fight for the French, a power that would crumble under the boot of the Nazis in a matter of weeks (never mind the French fascist collaborators that would help hold the country hostage for four years), but there’s also another kind of irony here. While he got to achieve a sort of moral victory by combatting the Nazis as quickly and directly as he could manage, Harding will ultimately also serve a power which is imperalist and at times murderous; that France was still very much a colonial power in 1938, arguably more so than the US, did not bother him too much apparently.

    It’s possible that Bear is saying the fight against fascism is a he-who-fights-monsters scenario where we have to, out of horrible necessity, support a lesser evil; it’s also possible I’m completely bullshitting here.

    A Step Farther Out

    The best negative criticism you can give something is that you wish there was more of it. I liked “Shoggoths in Bloom” a fair bit, and I wish there was more of it. It won the Hugo for Best Novelette, which feels weird to me because it barely qualifies as novelette-length; lacking a raw word count, I have to assume it barely makes it past 7,500 words. Really it could’ve been 17,500 words and I don’t think anyone would complain, as Bear packs a good deal of meat into this package, to the point where the package is about to burst. Still, there’s a tenderness and a dreaminess about it, and despite my reservations about the mode of narration, Harding is a perfectly fine lead character whose personal issues end up aligning with his research on the shoggoths. Like any good recursive story, Bear comments on the time period about which she is writing, and she does this in a style that also harks back to the days of Heinlein and van Vogt. I at first thought about putting a much more recent story of Bear’s, “She Still Loves the Dragon,” on my review plate instead of “Shoggoths in Bloom,” but maybe the latter serves better as an introduction. It may take six months or six years, but I’ll be reviewing more Bear… eventually.

    See you next time.

  • Serial Review: The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson (Part 2/3)

    (Cover by H. W. Wesso. Astounding, June 1938.)

    Who Goes There?

    Jack Williamson was the second person to be made a Grand Master of science fiction (after Robert Heinlein), which may sound weird to people nowadays because he’s a relatively obscure figure now. This is a shame, because Williamson has a pretty interesting career and if I did reviews of non-fiction books I would totally cover his autobiography, Wonder’s Child. Born in 1908, made his professional debut in 1928, and only stopped writing SFF with his death in 2006, which in itself is mindblowing, but there’s also the fact that while some authors from that same erakept being published based on their legacy value, Williamson did something considered nigh-impossible: he remained contemporary. Not only did he win a Hugo for Wonder’s Child but he would also win a Hugo and a Nebula for his 2000 novella “The Ultimate Earth,” making Williamson (as far as I’m aware) the oldest person to have won a Hugo. His 1947 novelette “With Folded Hands…” is still one of the most haunting robot-focused stories that I’ve read and that shit’s 75 years old.

    Despite the fact that Williamson had not quite turned thirty yet when he wrote it, The Legion of Time came about a good decade into his career—a career that would ultimately span 78 years. You could say it marks a transition point not just for Williamson, who was coming out of his Gernsback phase, but also magazine SF at large, since John W. Campbell had taken over Astounding Science Fiction in late 1937, slowly but surely introducing his own eccentric vision into the field. More apparent in Part 2 than in Part 1, The Legion of Time feels like the missing link between adventure-based SF in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition (actually it reminds me more of Robert E. Howard, but I’ll elaborate on that later) and the cerebral high-concept SF of the Campbell era. For Part 2 we’re really leaning into the adventure part of the equation, but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 2 was published in the June 1938 issue of Astounding, which is on the Archive. If you thought Part 1 was short (only about thirty pages in the magazine) then you might be surprised by Part 2, which is even shorter, clocking in at a little over twenty pages. I’m starting to get the impression that maybe The Legion of Time is actually a novella, although it would definitely skirt the line between novella and novel assuming Part 3 is the same length as Part 2. I wish I had a book version to compare the serial with, but rarely has The Legion of Time been printed on its own, most often being bundled with another Williamson story, the novella “After World’s End.” Confusingly, this bundle of two stories is just called The Legion of Time, because those double paperbacks Ace did back in the day weren’t a thing yet and nobody knew what they were doing. You can also get it as part of The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, but those volumes aren’t exactly cheap. Despite getting a Retro Hugo nomination and despite being well-liked by the few who’ve read it (Brian Aldiss was apparently a fan of it), it has not been reprinted that often.

    Enhancing Image

    I want to start off with a bit of a rant. The Wikipedia entry for The Legion of Time states that there is no “Legion of Time” in the novel, and that the title was probably chosen as a marketing move, since Williamson was up to that point most famous for The Legion of Space, though the two are not connected in any way. The latter is probably true, but first point is false. Maybe this is not the case in the book version, but in the magazine version the time-traveling army Dennis Lanning joins is called the Legion of Time at one point in Part 1; mind you, it’s also called the Legion of the Dead, and these titles don’t seem official, but to say there’s no Legion of Time would be inaccurate. Now with that out of the way…

    Part 1 had ended on a foreboding note, with the dystopian society of Gyronchi decreasing to the probable existence of the utopian Jonbar to such a degree that Jonbar starts to face out altogether—or rather, its likelihood of ever existing approaches zero. Part 2 begins with Lethonee, being herself only possible through Jonbar, fading out of existence, and it’s a bitter scene despite our intuition that Lanning, Our Hero™, will somehow bring his beloved back into existence by the end. The way time travel works here is that Jonbar and Gyronchi are mutually exclusive in that they cannot exist in the same timeline; if one comes into being, the other is booted out. Existence is based on probability, and the less probable a future thing is, the less it can interact with the past, or rather Lanning’s present. Once Lethonee gets wiped from the timeline, Sorainya (her evil counterpart) becomes solid. What’s important to note is that Lethonee has not exactly died, as Wilmot McLan (our resident mad scientist) explains:

    The ship, in a moment, was back in her timeless blue abyss, driving through the ceaseless flicker of possibility. Fanning hastened to join Wil McLan beneath the crystal dome, and asked a breathless, tortured question: “Lethonee is gone—dead?”

    The sunken, haunted eyes looked at him solemnly.

    “Not dead,” rasped Wil McLan, “for she was never born. Jonbar was merely a faint probability of future time, which we illuminated with the power of the temporal ray. This last triumph of Sorainya has—eliminated the probability. The reflection, therefore, vanished.”

    Sorainya and her army of giant ants (more on those later) have all but succeeded in making sure Jonbar never comes into being; there is, however, still another way. The villains have found an object which McLan and his crew have been unable to identify, which apparently represents a fork in the road leading to Jonbar and Gyronchi. Whereas Lanning had been previously led to believe that he was said object, this turns out to not be the case—but rather something else from the past. Ignoring all the technobabble about temporal rays and whatnot, the idea is simple enough: if Lanning can find this mysterious object and return it to its proper place in time, then Jonbar has a chance. Where could this object be? If Sorainya has it in her possession, and if the Chronion is capable of interacting physically with past and future (how, for instance, they were able to pick up Lanning and other members of the Legion), then Our Heroes™ have but one option.

    An all-out assault, practically a suicide run, on Sorainya’s front door.

    In a movie, typically, we have three acts, and what often happens is that there’s a turning point, you could say a bridge between the second and third acts, where Our Heroes™ are at their lowest point and it takes either a good pep talk or a deus ex machina to pull them out of it. Not so with The Legion of Time, where Lanning and company reach their lowest point about halfway through, and why not: Lethonee is dead, or rather un-alive, and Sorainya has basically won. Whereas Part 1 is high-spirited and briskly paced, Part 2 still has that pacing, but the tone is now much darker. I’ll get into this in the spoilers section, but I do have to wonder if Williamson was maybe inspired by Robert E. Howard when it came to writing… basically everything about Sorainya’s fortress. While the timespan of Part 1 was considerable, starting in 1927 and ending in 1938 (if I remember right) before Lanning gets picked up by the Chronion, the timespan of Part 2 is far more compressed. This is not a bad thing, mind you. Williamson can write pretty good action when he wants to, and most of Part 2 is straight action.

    In my review of Part 1 I brought up the novel’s overt sexuality, at least by the standards of ’30s SF, and how Williamson injects as much lust into his weird love triangle as—well, love. We don’t get as much of that here, since Lethonee and Sorainya are off-screen for most of it, but that’s fine, because a different problem crops up: what to do about Sorainya. Because the whole point is that we have to kill Sorainya, or at least set things up so that she was never born in the first place, but this is easier said than done. Lanning knows he has to kill the bitch, and he’ll do it, but despite the fact that Sorainya’s tried to kill him several times over the years, he can’t bring himself to hate her completely. The pussy is too good. Speaking of which, you may recall that Sorainya had captured and tortured McLan for yeeeeears, and you’d think this would make it easy for him to hate her.

    Not quite so.

    “Fifteen years—” came the slow whisper at last. “Fifteen years since I found that she is a demon. Lying, treacherous, savagely cruel, as near a female devil as could be. And still—beautiful. Somehow, glorious!” Some deep-hidden agony throbbed in his whisper.

    “I hate Sorainya!” It was a savage rush. “She tricked me, tortured me, maimed me forever ! She—she—” Something seemed to choke him. At last came the voiceless sigh: “But still—for all her hateful evil—could I kill Sorainya? Could any man?”

    What interests me about Sorainya, especially as a symbol, is that while usually with a super-attractive evil girlboss we get maybe a passing mention from Our Hero™ about her attractiveness, and ain’t it a gosh darn shame that she’s evil (Robert E. Howard does this sometimes, come to think of it), this is not so with Sorainya. Not only is Sorainya noted as being some hot shit, but her personality also entrances the men she meets; her sheer force of will is intoxicating, and in that sense she’s the ideal fascist woman. She’s blonde and fair-skinned, for one, but she also thinks that action for the sake of itself is glorious, and of course she’s a total warmonger. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that Williamson is about the macabre eroticism of fascism, or rather fascism’s eroticization of death, and how that could be appealing for lonely white dudes like Lanning and McLan. The bitch must be destroyed, but we would be lying to ourselves if we said she was totally unattractive. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Gyronchi, Sorainya’s homeland, is not only a theocratic militarist state, but is (at least according to McLan) destined to destroy itself along with the rest of mankind.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    So, Lanning and a bunch of redshirts jump into the future and attack Sorainya’s fortress. The results are grim. Not to say these men are afraid of dying, they had already died before, but the ensuing carnage is fairly outrageous. Remember how I said Sorainya has giant ants for minions? Oh yeah. We’re talking ants the size of people, and they’re bipedal and intelligent; they use weapons, but they also have their big fucking mandibles that can cut off a dude’s head. Which yeah, that happens. Williamson started out writing for Hugo Gernsback, and he later became one of Campbell’s regular authors, but he also submitted frequently to Weird Tales in the ’30s. I just bring this up because Weird Tales occasionally published SF, but it was primarily a horror and dark fantasy magazine (the original horror and dark fantasy magazine), which where we saw a lot of Howard and Lovecraft and so on. The sequence that takes up the bulk of Part 2 of The Legion of Time reads like one of Howard’s Conan stories, but not as flamboyant. I’m not even sure what to single out here, since there are whole pages of gory man-on-bug action.

    Okay, I’ve got one passage, and it’s not even one of the fight scenes. It’s this grim little moment in the depths of the prison—more of a dungeon, really.

    A dreadful silence filled most of the prison. But from one cell came an agonized screaming, paper-thin from a raw throat, repeated with a maddening monotony. Glancing through a barred door, as he passed, Lanning saw a woman stretched out in chains on the floor. A crystal vessel swung back and forth, above her, pendulumlike. And drops of cold green fire fell from it, one by one, upon her naked flesh. With each spattering, corrosive drop, she writhed against the chains, and shrieked again.

    The half-consumed body, Lanning thought, might once have been beautiful. Could this have been some rival of Sorainya’s? A cold hate turned him rigid, and quickened his step. A muffled shot echoed behind him, and the screaming stopped.

    Not fun. Well, it does get fun later. When I reviewed Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On— I took issue with how the first-person narration not only diluted the stakes but gave us a fainter impression as to what’s going on during action scenes, which that novella has quite a few of, especially in its second half. Williamson gets around this by not having a first-person narrator, but he’s also simply more capable as an action writer, or at least he’s more brutal as an action writer. The brutality is not disturbing, but it is surprisingly extreme for a story published in Campbell’s Astounding, yet considering it’s basically not horror at all it probably would not have sold to Weird Tales. I’m reminded of an earlier story of Williamson’s, “The Moon Era,” which I liked, mostly for a female character who was a) an alien, b) an active player in the story, and c) not objectified by the male hero (who, admittedly, would not be quite old enough to objectify much of anything). But that novella is about a boy who takes a rocket ship to the moon and gets caught up in a war between alien races. That story was also heavy on action, and by the time he wrote The Legion of Time it seems like Williamson had gotten even better at concocting gripping action scenes.

    A Step Farther Out

    So far I’m liking this a lot. The Legion of Time is this combination of Campbellian big-brain SF with pre-Campbell adventure pulp, with a tinge of weird fiction thrown into the mix. I’m pretty sure Williamson frequently appearing in Weird Tales in the ’30s (making him contemporaries with Howard and Lovecraft, though I don’t think he interacted with either of them personally) had changed his writing philosophy somewhat by the time Campbell came around, and we can see this in The Legion of Time as well as the stories he would later submit to Unknown. Ultimately, though, we still have an ingenious time travel narrative that hardly ever stops to catch its breath, being too eager to either explore its mechanics further or to indulge in some swashbuckling action. The pacing may be too brisk for you, and I suspect a lot of modern readers will be put off by the sheer artlessness of the whole thing, despite the concepts it puts forth. Unless the final installment drops the ball, I suspect I’ll rate it pretty highly.

    See you next time.

  • Novella Review: “The Star-Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

    (Cover by Gray Morrow. Worlds of Tomorrow, February 1967.)

    Who Goes There?

    Of the SFF authors to have debuted in the ’60s, Samuel R. Delany may well be the best; it helps that his rise to prominence was swift, though it may not have seemed that way at first. Delany debuted with a novel (unlike most of his contemporaries he was a novelist first and foremost) titled The Jewels of Aptor, and quickly followed that up with a trilogy of novels known as the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which you can find as an omnibus. Perhaps the first big sign of Delany’s precocious genius (he was 19 when he wrote The Jewels of Aptor) was the 1965 novella “The Ballad of Beta-2,” which earned him his first Nebula nomination. 1966, however, would mark the beginning of a brief but intense streak which lasted until the end of 1968, as we got his first masterpiece, the Nebula-winning novel Babel-17, one of the few SF works of its time to be concerned chiefly with linguistics, as well as its companion novella “Empire Star.” Delany insisted the two be bundled together, but this did not happen for many years, with “Empire Star” instead being bundled with “The Ballad of Beta-2.”

    1967 was the year Delany threw his hat into the ring of the short story, quickly showing that his daunting brilliance showed often just as much in the short form as with his novels and novellas, with “Driftglass,” “Corona,” and his Nebula-winning short story “Aye, and Gomorrah…” being nothing less than the work of an already-refined artist. We also got the Nebula-winning (see a pattern here?) novel The Einstein Intersection, and the following year we got perhaps the best novel from this first phase of his career, Nova, along with the Hugo- and Nebula-winning novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” By the time this streak ended, with Delany’s output suddenly screeching to a halt at the end of the ’60s, he was all of 27 years old, and had won a record-breaking four Nebulas in as many years (plus a Hugo), not to mention seven novels in as many years (eight if we count They Fly at Çiron, though it wouldn’t be published until decades later). With the exception of maybe Roger Zelazny, there was no American author to have debuted in the ’60s who shone brighter than Delany.

    If we focus too much on the first phase of Delany’s career when in a retrospective mood, I would say it’s for two reasons: firstly, he was incredibly productive at this time, with nearly half of his novels being published between 1962 and 1968, and secondly, it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary Delany was from pretty much the outset. For one thing, he was the first black SFF author of any significance; not to say he was the first black author to have written SFF (W. E. B. Du Bois comes to mind), but he was the first to specialize in SFF, and the first to make his mark in the magazines. “The Star-Pit” (the hyphen would be removed for reprints) was in fact his first story to see magazine publication, and by this point he had already established himself as a formidable force as a novelist. That Delany would only become more ambitious (if also more polarizing) once he came back from his hiatus goes to show the depths of his artistry.

    Delany celebrated his 80th birthday this past April. Let’s hope he gets to celebrate another one.

    Placing Coordinates

    “The Star-Pit” was first published in the February 1967 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow, which is on the Archive. A problem I often run into with novellas is that even the most famous of them don’t get reprinted as often as their short story counterparts (novella-focused anthologies have sadly never quite taken off), but you won’t have much of a problem finding this one. “The Star-Pit” has been reprinted a good number of times, in Judith Merril’s SF 12, in Robert Silverberg’s Alpha 5, in The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (co-edited by Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg), in Gardner Dozois’s Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction, and in Delany’s collection Driftglass. If you want a source that’s currently in print then look no further than Delany’s collection Aye, and Gomorrah: Stories, which, as far as I can tell, collects everything in Driftglass plus some later stories. Sadly, Delany was never that prolific in the short form, and it’s all too easy to get a one-volume collection of all of his non-series short works. While the man has been making a big difference by dedicating his time to academia for the past several decades, one has to shudder when thinking about how much more fiction he could’ve written.

    Enhancing Image

    The story opens with Vyme, our narrator, who at this early point is the father of several children and husbamd in a polygamous marriage. We find out quickly that in the culture Wyme took part in before coming to the Star-pit (more on that in a minute), plural marriage is the norm, and is basically codified for the purpose of producing and raising a myriad of children. The opening scene has Vyme with his oldest son, Antoni, and there’s an accident with a highly advanced terrarium, in which some “sloths” (they’re called that, but they’re described as being closer to small rodents) get loose. One of these sloths ventures too far from its enclosure, and it reacts violently when Wyme tries to retrieve it. The sloth appears to have gone crazy from being out in the sun too long. This whole scene, and the following conversation especially, may not strike us as plot-relevant, but it sets up an important thematic motif that Delany will return to later.

    It snapped at me, and I jerked back. “Sun stroke, kid-boy. Yeah, it is crazy.”

    Suddenly it opened its mouth wide, let out all its air, and didn’t take in any more. It’s all right now, I said.

    Two more of the baby sloths were at the door, front cups over the sill, staring with bright, black eyes. I pushed them back with a piece of sea shell and closed the door. Antoni kept looking at the white fur ball on the sand. “Not crazy now?”

    “It’s dead,” I told him.

    “Dead because it went outside, da?”

    I nodded.

    The opening scene of “The Star-Pit” is a curious one, firstly because it’s something of a flashback (it takes place several years prior to most of the story), and also because it does not make Vyme look good, despite the fact that he’s the one narrating. First-person narrators, whether by design or through omission of detail, often come off as better than they probably were, which is not surprising; if you’re telling a story that involves you personally, you wanna make yourself look good—or at least not bad. Vyme reveals himself to be an unusually emotionally honest narrator, though, one who had made a serious mistake in the past which alienated him from the rest of his marriage group and prompted him to seek work off-planet. To make matters worse (this is not a spoiler, mind you), an unforeseen catastrophe takes Vyme’s partners and children from him; he can’t go home again, even if he wants to. Since then Vyme has basically started his life over as a mechanic at the Star-pit, a spaceport which oversees intergalactic ships as they bring back precious materials from distant worlds.

    The big catch is that while space travel is common in this story’s universe, the vast majority of people can’t be space pilots; no, that position is reserved for only a tiny fraction of the population with very specific qualifications. The golden (as adjective and noun, singular and plural) are a set of people with a certain kind of psychosis and a certain hormonal imbalance which seemingly predisposes them to sociopathy (they’re often said to be stupid or mean, or both), but which also enables them to fly through deep space without going totally insane or dying. For most people, if you were to travel through space as such and such a speed for such and such a distance, you would lose your mind, then your life. The discovery of the golden was pure accident, and honestly it reminds me of the equally accidental discovery of jaunting in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. “The Star-Pit” and Nova are particularly reminiscent of Bester’s novel.

    Through some freakish accident, two people had been discovered who didn’t crack up at twenty thousand light-years off the galactic rim, who didn’t die at twenty-five thousand.

    They were both psychological freaks with some incredible hormone imbalance in their systems. One was a little oriental girl; the other was an older man, blond and big boned, from a cold planet circling Cygnus-beta: golden. They looked sullen as hell, both of them.

    You may notice the one character being described as “oriental,” as is another character later on. I point this out because you may be taken aback slightly by Delany’s occasional outdated racial vocabulary (another character is described as “negroid”), which is nothing more than a product of its time. It’s also worth pointing out that Vyme is black, which is certainly a mundane details nowadays but would’ve been a rarity in SFF circa 1967. Not that such a thing was totally unheard of: Robert Heinlein and H. Beam Piper managed to sneak POC into their fiction, sometimes even all but stating a protagonist is non-white. Delany was the first, however, to write POC in magazine SFF from a non-white person’s perspective.


    The golden are a different matter. I get strong Philip K. Dick vibes from this notion that in order to explore the vast reaches of space, it would be necessary to recruit slightly insane people who won’t go totally insane under the pressure. Golden are differentiated most apparently by the golden belts they’re required to wear, which does raise a question, and believe it or not it’s a question Delany answers: Wouldn’t it be a little too easy to pass off as a golden if you were to steal one of their belts? The thing of course is that a normal person would crack under the pressure, then die, if they were to take the role of a golden and head out for deep space—but suppose someone who’s more than a little suicidal were to do such a thing? By way of a dramatic action scene, we’re left early on with a golden’s ship without a golden to pilot it, and that’s where Ratlit comes in.

    Ratlit may be the most interesting character in “The Star-Pit,” for his unusual traits and also for his ambiguity. Ratlit is a bestselling author, which is strange for two reasons: the first is that he was a literal child when he wrote it, only barely being in his teens when Vyme meets him, and the second is that he didn’t technically write it, on account of being illiterate. He had a novel dictated and it sold like crack, which I suppose makes him a child prodigy. Oh, and he really hates the golden—like really hates them, and yet he also wants to become a golden. I have to assume Ratlit just narrowly misses the qualifications for being deemed a golden, because he’s definitely an asshole, and he’s definitely an idiot. Admittedly, and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler to say, but every golden we come across in this novella is pretty much a moronic sociopath; they don’t care about other people, but they’re barely even functioning enough to take care of themselves.

    Another character we’re introduced to who’s arguably even weirder than Ratlit, albeit relatively underdeveloped, is Alegra. Ratlit is a 13-year-old bestselling novelist while Alegra is a 15-year-old projecting telepath, meaning she can project her thoughts into other people’s minds. Oh, and she’s been a drug addict ever since she was an infant. Oh, and she worked as a psychiatrist (government backing and everything) when she was eight years old. Part of me has to wonder why Delany made the ages of some of his characters so goddamn low, to the point of maybe straining one’s suspension of disbelief. I have to assume he’s making a comment about child prodigies, being something of a child prodigy himself (he had read War & Peace when he was 12 or something), and the harmful ramifications of being such a young talent. Delany was 23 when he wrote “The Star-Pit,” and maybe at the time he feared he was already going to burn out as a writer. Maybe the age thing has to do with Vyme’s role as a former parent, as an adult who lost his children, though this angle doesn’t become pointed until later.

    Ratlit and Alegra are both young and stupid, so naturally they hang out together a lot, and indeed their relationship may be more than just platonic. That neither of them is a golden when Vyme meets them is quite the coincidence, given their temperaments, and also quite a coincidence that they’re both child prodigies. But then, at least according to Vyme, having two such people in the same place may not be so coincidental, given the function of the Star-pit and the government’s mad scramble for more golden.

    Fifteen-year-old ex-psychiatrist drug addict? Same sort of precocity that produces thirteen-year-old novelists. Get used to it.

    It’s this remark (along with a few others) that makes me think Delany is trying to articulate his position as someone who was a highly precocious teenager, to the point of having a published novel by the time he was twenty. He could’ve been either an artist or a madman—or going back to Dick, he could’ve been both. It’s weird because the lectures and interviews I’ve seen of Delany make him come off as a very well-adjusted person, despite some of the drama that’s happened in his life. You see, on top of being black, growing up in an era where racial segregation was still the norm, Delany is also gay. Or maybe bisexual, there’s some debate as to what his orientation “really” is. Point being that Delany is pretty far from straight, and his queerness would not be made known to the SFF readership at large until quite a few years after his initial rise to prominence.

    You can see there are a few threads going on here.

    Delany’s chief concerns in this story seem to be with ethics—nay, the mere possibility of space travel—as well as parent-child relationships. I’ll talk about the former more because it holds a greater interest in an SF context. While Delany’s novella is by no means the first to deconstruct the typically gung ho attitude people have about space travel (I’m thinking of Edmond Hamilton’s masterful short story “What’s It Like Out There?”), it goes about the question in a way that probably would not have seen print a mere decade earlier. For reasons I’ll elaborate on in the spoilers section, the problem of intergalactic travel is particularly tricky here, because the only people qualified to pilot such ships must be mentally ill. Mental illness occupies the very core of “The Star-Pit,” and everything would fall apart if Delany’s exploration of the golden (who, make no mistake, are all people suffering from mental illness, with experienced golden also suffering from PTSD) didn’t ring true on some level. Thankfully, like everything else, Delany’s exploration is humane, thought-provoking, and has real human blood running in its veins.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    Tragedy strikes once again.

    I had alluded earlier to how easy it would be to take a golden’s belt and pass off as one, and that’s what Ratlit does. Ratlit, who doesn’t quite make the cut to be a golden, takes someone’s golden belt—Alegra’s. In a revelation which admittedly doesn’t strike me as all that plausible, Alegra is diagnosed as a golden, at age 15 (golden are typically “found” when they’re in grade school), and she tells Ratlit and Vyme the “good news.” This is actually a very bad thing, though we don’t find out why until it’s far too late. See, the problem is that Alegra is a drug addict, and withdrawal is strong enough to kill her; she must be on the stuff, or else. There is another complication that, in practice, prevents her from going to space, and it’s the fact that she’s pregnant—apparently with Ratlit’s kid.

    The more I think about this, the darker it sounds. Which it really is. It’s also fucked up that Ratlit and Alegra find themselves in a catch-22 where Alegra won’t survive space travel in the shape she’s in, and neither will Ratlit (for different reasons), yet Ratlit wants to go so badly and and he must’ve realized at some point that there will be no happy ending. Alegra goes through withdrawal, and Vyme isn’t able to get the drug for her in time. Ratlit goes out to space, with Alegra’s golden belt, never to be seen again. Two kids whom Vyme has gotten to know, sort of like surrogate children for him, are both taken away in what feels like the blink of an eye. An abortion would’ve saved Alegra maybe, but according to Vyme no such safe options are available on the Star-pit. It’s a horrific situation, but it only gets worse once we get all the details after the fact.

    Maybe I’m old fashioned, but when someone runs off and abandons a sick girl like that, it gets me. That was the trip to Carlson’s, the one last little favor Ratlit never came back from. On the spot results, and formal confirmation in seven days. In her physical condition, pregnancy would have been as fatal as the withdrawal. And she was too ill for any abortive method I know of not to kill her. On the spot results. Ratlit must have known all that too when he got the results back, the results that Alegra was probably afraid of, the results she sent him to find. Ratlit knew Alegra was going to die anyway. And so he stole a golden belt. “Loving someone, I mean really loving someone—” Alegra had said. When someone runs off and leaves a sick girl like that, there’s got to be a reason. It came together for me like two fissionables. The explosion cut some moorings in my head I thought were pretty solidly fixed.

    A gripe I do have with “The Star-Pit” is that the action reaches its climax with Alegra dying and Ratlit going on his suicide run, but when this all happens we’re not quite three quarters into the story. “The Star-Pit” is a 50-page story in its magazine publication, and the Ratlit/Alegra plot takes up maybe 30 pages, when really I wish it took up a larger chunk. Thematically we get a continuation with a new golden, a teenager nicknamed An, who brings things full circle, but the drama has deflated by this point, despite Delany’s best efforts to enfuse Vyme’s own personal drama with the right amount of pathos. We start and end with Vyme himself, who despite being reasonably good at his job is otherwise grief-stricken, a drunk, and objectively an irresponsible parent. Is he a drunk because he’s an irresponsible parent, or an irresponsible parent because he’s a drunk?

    And what of the golden? The golden are the only people qualified to travel between galaxies, yet they’re qualified partly because they’re treated as pariahs by the rest of mankind, and their seeming incapability to get along with other people further reinforces their pariah status. A normal person will likely hate a golden, but will also likely be envious of them. The new golden in the story’s third act, An, has a tiny terrarium he takes around with him, and we’re taken back to the so-called sloth that went outside its enclosure and went mad. The golden venture outside their enclosure (the enclosure being the human family) and are thus crazy—only they do not necessarily die from it. Ratlit wants desperately to become a golden because he thinks his life on the Star-pit is constraining, claustrophobic, horrible, but the golden are not exactly free to do whatever they want.

    Delany seems to be making an argument about the need for human interaction, and more importantly for human warmth. Vyme and his assistant Sandy (whom I didn’t even get to mention until now) are both exiles, having been permanently separated from their group marriages, trying to find redemption (or at least solace) in their work on the Star-pit, only to find that their characters have not grown stronger, their stars no brighter than before. While we don’t learn too much about the mechanics of these group marriages which have become commonplace (for instance, homosexuality is implied but never delved into), we get the strong impression that these men are worse off for having cut themselves off from their partners, Vyme because of a war which caught his family in the crossfire and Sandy because his former partners no longer want him to return. In practically every corner you look, there’s tragedy, and a yearning to transcend that tragedy—to break through the barrier, or the walls of one’s terrarium.

    A Step Farther Out

    I have a few small issues, mainly having to do with plausibility, but upon close inspection I think “The Star-Pit” stands out as one of Delany’s early masterworks, as well as a relatively accessible demonstration of his craft. Delany would get more experimental very shortly, but when he was writing “The Star-Pit” he must’ve been at a crossroads, at the bridge between a promising beginner and a refined craftsman. It helps that Delany’s ascension to the forefront of SFF was at a mile a minute, with him seemingly learning an important lesson with every project he finished. By the time he wrote Nova, a little over a year after he wrote “The Star-Pit,” Delany had all but perfectly balanced his penchant for flamboyance and lyricism with his immense talent as a writer of space opera—maybe the only great writer of space opera to come out of the ’60s. “The Star-Pit” is moody, deeply tragic, often filled to the brim with ideas, but it’s not rushed; it almost feels more like a compressed novel than a true novella, but it ultimately feels well-realized. Most importantly, it feels human in a way that a lot of New Wave-era science fiction doesn’t, only one thing of many that made Delany special.

    1968 was the first year the Hugos had an award for Best Novella, which if you ask me was a long time coming, but better late than never. The inaugural Best Novella shortlist is also stacked, with Philip José Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” and Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search” tying for the Hugo. “The Star-Pit” was also nominated, though weirdly it was not also nominated for the Nebula. I must admit I have a considerable soft spot for Farmer’s story (though most people seem to hate it), and I’m rather indifferent to McCaffrey’s, but I think at least from a modern perspective it’s fair to say Delany’s story should’ve won. “The Star-Pit” is a remarkable exploration of a question which especially occupied hard SF since at least the Campbell era, and which retains strong relevance thanks to a certain oligarch and his space program: Are we sure we ought to go to space? Not just the moon (we’ve already been there), or the other planets of our solar system, but beyond the Milky Way… beyond what our technology is currently capable of giving us, but which we may be able to reach in a few generations. We’ll have to sit on a hill, or at the top of a mountain, and we’ll have to look up at the stars and ask ourselves the question posed at the very end of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth:

    “What do we do…?”

    See you next time.

  • Serial Review: The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson (Part 1/3)

    (Cover by Charles Schneeman. Astounding, May 1938.)

    Who Goes There?

    Jack Williamson made his debut in 1928 with “The Metal Man,” in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. While not the oldest author we’ve covered so far (Clifford Simak is a few years older than him), Williamson is remarkable for his versatility and longevity, and he debuted before Simak, first being published when he was only twenty years old. Williamson started out as an SF author of the Gernsbackian mode, being close contemporaries with E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton, guys who wrote fast and often sloppily in the hopes of getting as many stories published as quickly as possible—and why not? The pulps generally didn’t pay well, and Gernsback was especially notorious for being slow to pay his writers. Still, Williamson persisted, and when Astounding Science Fiction started hitting its stride in 1934 he jumped ship pretty readily, giving us perhaps the most notable SF novel of that year, The Legion of Space. But whereas Smith and Hamilton remained most known for their grand space operas, and while Williamson was no slouch in that department, he would soon branch out and reveal an almost startling intelligence.

    When John W. Campbell took over Astounding in late 1937, not immediately making his mark but gradually reshaping the magazine in his own image over the next two years, most of the Gernsback-era authors failed to adjust; Williamson, however, was not one of them. While he would never again reach the level of productivity of his first decade, Williamson not only survived the coming of Campbell but became one of the brighter (albeit relatively infrequent) stars in Campbell’s stable. From this period (1938 to about 1950), Williamson wrote the famous novelette “With Folded Hands…” and its follow-up novel …And Searching Mind (published in book form as The Humanoids), the equally inventive and deliciously atmospheric horror novella “Darker Than You Think” (published in Unknown, Astounding‘s arguably superior sister magazine), and the short novel that we’re starting today, The Legion of Time. Contrary to what its title may imply, The Legion of Time is not connected to the Legion of Space series, but is indeed a totally standalone work; the folks at ISFDB seem confused about it, since it’s classified as part of a series there—a series where it’s the only entry.

    In the ’50s Williamson devoted much of his time to going back to school, where he would write a respectable thesis on H. G. Wells and would, in the process, become one of the first people to bring SF to the world of higher education. Still, he never strayed from the field as a writer for too long, with the occasional solo effort or collaboration (especially with Frederik Pohl) popping up to remind people that Williamson was still in the game. In 1985 he won a Hugo for his autobiography, Wonder’s Child, which details not only his early life but his long and ongoing relationship with SF. He won another Hugo in 2001, this time for Best Novella, for “The Ultimate Earth,” which became part of his novel Terraforming Earth. Williamson was 93 when he won that second Hugo. When Williamson died in 2006, he was still very much active, and he immediately stood out as having (to this day, as far as I can tell) the longest career of any SF author at 78 years. Like Hailey’s Comet, which can appear at the beginning and end of a person’s long life, Williamson lived to witness not only the prehistoric dawn of the Gernsback era but the neon sunrise of 21st century SF.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 1 of The Legion of Time appeared in the May 1938 issue of Astounding. It’s on the Archive. Despite being long enough to qualify as a full novel (albeit barely), The Legion of Time has mostly been printed in book form as part of a bundle, most often with another short work of Williamson’s from that period, “After World’s End.” It has also been collected in Spider Island, which is the fourth volume of Williamson’s collected stories. It’s worth noting that The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson has eight volumes, and stories published between 1928 and 1938 comprise the first four. Despite not being reprinted too often (I’ve never seen a copy in the wild), and despite not being one of Williamson’s most famous works (though it is undoubtedly considered major), it garnered a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novel. You could argue the pool for eligible novels (never mind the quality) from 1938 has to do with it, but I would also argue the nomination was well-earned.

    Enhancing Image

    We start out with a quartet of college boys: Dennis Lanning, Wilmot McLan, Barry Halloran, and Lao Meng Shan. Lanning passes the time by himself in the apartment he shares with the homies by reading a scientific paper by McLan, the latter seeming to be the most intelligent and well-read of the bunch, and of course it’s about time travel.

    Deep-hidden in its abstruse mathematics, Lanning had sensed an exciting meaning. He leaned back, with tired eyes closing, trying to complete the tantalizing picture he had glimpsed through the mist of symbols on the page. The book began with Minkowski’s famous dictum: “Space in itself, and Time in itself, sink to mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two retains a kind of independent existence.”

    Was Time, then, another extension of the universe; to-morrow as real as yesterday? What if one could leap forward—?

    It takes all of three pages (I’m not kidding, three pages) for the plot to kick in as, in the midst of reading his friend’s paper, Lanning comes into contact with a mysterious woman—or rather the specter of a mysterious woman, who appears spontaneously out of nothingness. The woman is almost impossibly beautiful, and because Lanning is a young man circa 1927 who’s had zero pussy in his life, he instantly falls for her. The woman is Lethonee, someone from a future society called Jonbar, and while she can’t interact physically with Lanning, she stays long enough to warn him about her dark counterpart—an evil girlboss named Sorainya who comes from another future society called Gyronchi. Jonbar has milk and cookies while Gyronchi is a shithole, apparently. Lanning at first doubts the validity of this chance encounter, after Lethonee has vanished, but because this is a pulp SF story from the ’30s it doesn’t take long for him to get over that small hiccup.

    A few things struck me immediately. The first is Williamson wastes absolutely no time in introducing the conflict, and he also makes no bones about who’s good and who’s bad. It’s not a spoiler at all to say Lethonee is the good girlboss while Sorainya is the bad girlboss, and that Lanning will, at some point, come to the side of Jonbar, which is obviously the goody-two-shoes side. What makes this interesting is that while Sorainya is a villain, she’s by no means unattractive or unappealing, embodying one of my favorite tropes in old-timey pulp fiction: the sexy villainness whose assertiveness and cunning makes (let’s face it) the female love interest look bland by comparison. While there’s no question that Lenning will ultimately end up with Lethonee, it’s not as quite as east as that, but more on that later.

    Another thing that struck me is that we’re not given a totally conventional depiction of time travel here, and it still feels somewhat unorthodox in the year 2022. This is not like The Terminator or Back to the Future, or even Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” because future actors cannot directly impact the subjective present. When Lethonee and Sorainya appear to Lanning they appear as ghosts, being seen but unable to interact physically with the present; they can, however, influence the present in more indirect ways. Lanning and Halloran are both aviators, and Lethonee convinces Lanning to not go flying solo on a specific day, as she suspects Sorainya has a trap for him—a trap that seems to instead get Halloran, who dies in a freak accident but whose body is conspicuously not recovered. You probably have an idea as to what happened with Halloran, but I urge you to hold onto that thought. The point is that Sorainya basically tempts Lanning more than once to kill himself, or rather to put himself in a situation where he dies in an untimely manner. Good pussy will do that.

    I’m not sure if The Legion of Time was bought by Campbell or by F. Orlin Tremaine, Astounding‘s previous editor. Sure, Campbell was in full control by then, but story purchases tend to be carried over between editors, and Tremaine had only been gone a few months; still, Campbell had say on what got published, and this feels out of character for him. I say this because Campbell, while he was undoubtedly a Promethean figure and an innovator in the field, was a puritan (among other things). Sex, even implicitly or metaphorically, rarely showed up in the fiction of Campbell’s Astounding, yet The Legion of Time stands out as being unquestionably and almost unapologetically horny. We get something like a love triangle where the two female leads (having two female leads, imagine that) each try to get the male hero to do her bidding, and at least part of this is done via sexual temptation. The descriptions of Lethonee’s physical beauty are one thing, but Sorainya’s sexual ferocity is not only undeniable but plays an actual role in the plot, as I’ll explain in the spoilers section.

    This is not to downplay the story’s ingenuinity with its time travel mechanics, which are quite intriguing. Lanning, unbeknownst to himself, plays a pivotal role in the advents of Jonbar and Gyronchi, and Lethonee does an admirable job of throwing exposition at him to explain how these two societies are related and how the interplay between present and future works. Mind you we’re talking about the subjective present (Lanning’s present), and not some kind of past; the past has already happened, but conversely, the future is but a phantom of itself.

    “The World is a long corridor, from the Beginning of existence to the End. Events are groups in a sculptured frieze that runs endlessly along the walls. And Time is a lantern carried steadily through the hall, to illuminate the groups one by one. It is the light of awareness, the subjective reality of consciousness.

    “Again and again the corridor branches, for it is the museum of all that is possible. The bearer of the lantern may take one turning, or another. And so, many halls that might have been illuminated with reality are left forever in the darkness.

    “My world of Jonbar is one such possible way. It leads through splendid halls, bright vistas that have no limit. Gyronchi is another. But it is a barren track, through narrowing, ugly passages, that comes to a dead and useless end.”

    Not unlike how the Time Traveler in Wells’s The Time Machine jumps forward 800,000 years to see the grotesque future of mankind, divided between the feeble-minded Eloi and the ruthless Morlocks, Lanning glimpses into a future where mankind either flourishes or devolves into a kind of techno-fascism. The catch is that these are two different futures, and they do not exist on the same physical plane. It’s here that we are introduced to what has to be one of the first (if not the first) time wars in SF history, involving not just one future timeline but several conflicting timelines. That Williamson came up with this premise circa 1937 is astounding in itself, but it’s how he rationalizes what sounds pretty far out that gets me. It’s an adventure yarn, sure, but it’s an adventure yarn brimming with ideas, not to mention red hot blood in its veins.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    We only get something like a clear answer as to the mechanics of time travel in this story’s universe when Lanning dies—or does he? As it turns out, it was more important that Lanning live long enough to get to a certain point in his life than for him to perform a specific action; Sorainya spends much of Part 1 trying to kill Lanning, so as to prevent him from bringing about the existence of Jonbar, but conversely there’s a right time for him to die, and die he does, under circumstances not dissimilar from Halloran’s. As if by magic, Lanning finds himself recovering on a ship called the Chronion, a time-traveling vessel that picks up soldiers at the time of their deaths, revives them, and recruits them into the forces of Jonbar. Lanning reunites with Halloran, who hadn’t died (not permanently, anyway) after all, but rather was snatched up at the time of his death; while years had passed for Lanning, time had only gone by a few days in Halloran’s subjective present.

    Two things here. The first is that I honestly have to wonder if Fritz Leiber found inspiration in this for his Change War series, because the time war in that series is eerily similar to the deal with Jonbar and Gyronchi, what with people from throughout history being recruited into both sides. The second is that while this has to be a coincidence, I can’t help but feel like the Chronion is a distant precursor to the Epoch from Chrono Trigger. Sorry, was that a video game reference? Pardon me. I’m curious about what influence this short novel has had on future time travel fiction, considering it doesn’t get brought up often, and yet it must be said that Williamson’s concocting of the time travel shenanigans here is genuinely innovative, even if the prose itself doesn’t indicate as such.

    Not only is Halloran aboard, but so is McLan! Unfortunately, despite the fact that it had only been a decade for Lanning, many more years have passed for McLan, who’s been (from his viewpoint) in this fight for a long time. Not only that, but his own encounter with Sorainya was not a happy one; she fucked him up pretty good. Now a decrepit old man, McLan now acts as Mr. Exposition—which is an important title for this sort of thing. Lethonee had explained to Lanning how time works before, but McLan’s explains the situation more concretely and with 50% more technobabble.

    “The crux of it all is this: If Jonbar exists, Gyronchi can not. And equally, if Sorainya exists—Lethonee never comes to be. Each of those cities—each of those women—represents a possible future, a possible epoch. And—they represent different possibilities of the same epoch

    “Each has the secret of Time. But neither can, by any means whatever, reach the other! They can see each other—but they cannot reach or affect each other. Those doctors of Jonbar aboard the Chronion—they cannot reach Gyronchi, even though this ship goes down the geodesics that lead there. They cannot—for Gyronchi and Jonbar, and all things of either city are mutually exclusive. Either is possible—but not both!

    “Each is possible—but because of my blundering, I know now that the geodesics of Gyronchi are far stronger. The probability of Gyronchi is far greater.”

    Now, when it comes to time travel there’s always the big question: Is the future fixed or flexible? Are things predetermined to happen? Does everything work in a loop? A rule of thumb is that the more flexible the future is, the more optimistic the story is, in which case The Legion of Time is very much optimistic; the future in this novel is a work in progress. Williamson comes close to entering multiverse territory by playing with probabilities and divering paths, with Jonbar and Gyronchi trying to prevent the other’s existence by making that existence increasingly improbable. The reason why actors from the future aren’t able to physically interact with the present is because said actors are little more than theoretical in their existence. We very much want Jonbar to win because the alternative is a future where mankind is ultimately destroyed by a race of giant uplifted insects. That’s right, we get BEMs here, but Williamson gets away with it by focusing on the human drama.

    A Step Farther Out

    So far I’m excited about The Legion of Time, but I’ve been burned before. The two previous serials I reviewed started out strong but then weakened by the end, with the authors seemingly frontloading their stories with their best ideas and most disciplined writing. I suspect the same will be true of Williamson’s novel to some extent, but I hope it’s only minor. I honestly struggle to imagine how you’re supposed to top the latter half of Part 1, but then again, we’re only just being introducsed to a conflict that’s way bigger than any one person. While none of the three leads are complexly characterized, they don’t need to be; for one it’s unusual to have two thirds of your main cast be female in an SF story published in 1938, but it’s also appropriate to think of our leads as like sentient chess pieces on a board. Williamson’s treatment of sexuality is remarkably frank for its time, and his formulation of probability-based time travel is nothing short of prescient. Some will take issue with the super-brisk pacing and the gosh-wow style that defined pulp fiction of that era, but I don’t mind it really. I don’t feel like my time is being wasted.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Blind Minotaur” by Michael Swanwick

    (Cover by Larry Elmore. Amazing Stories, March 1985.)

    Who Goes There?

    Michael Swanwick has been in the game for over forty years, and shows no sign of slowing down. He debuted in 1980 with a pair of short stories, “Ginungagap” and “The Feast of Saint Janis,” both of which would garner Nebula nominations—not something you see every day with someone’s first work. Swanwick would continue to put out mostly short stories, somewhat sporadically, throughout the ’80s, and even at this early point in his career it was clear he was a writer of a different caliber than most of his peers. While Swanwick did sometimes contribute to then-newfangled cyberpunk scene (see “Dogfight,” his collaboration with William Gibson), he would ultimately be hard to pin down as either a cyberpunk or as one of the so-called humanists; the truth is that Swanwick’s influences are markedly different from those of William Gibson or Kim Stanley Robinson. It also took the SFF world a frustratingly long time to recognize Swanwick’s talents; despite his two Nebula nominations from the outset, it would take another decade for him to win one, coming with his masterful and bewildering 1991 novel Stations of the Tide.

    1985 was a big year for Swanwick, though by no means the last of those big years (it’s honestly hard to find Swanwick at a point where he’s not on top of things). Not only did we see In the Drift, his debut novel (greatly expanded from his earlier short story “Mummer Kiss”), but we got some major early short stories from him, including the aforementioned “Dogfight” and the solo story “The Transmigration of Philip K.” Oh yeah, and we got “The Blind Minotaur.” Now, whereas a lot of Swanwick’s early work would appear in either Omni or Asimov’s Science Fiction, “The Blind Minotaur” appeared in Amazing Stories, which surprisingly was still a thing at the time. Why did I pick “The Blind Minotaur” and not something more famous by Swanwick? For one, I was grabbed by the title. I hadn’t read it before, and I’d been meaning to get more into Swanwick’s early stuff. I could’ve reviewed one of his more famous stories, like “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” but I wanted to tackle something more obscure.

    Placing Coordinates

    “The Blind Minotaur” was first published in the March 1985 issue of Amazing Stories, which is on the Archive. It hasn’t been reprinted much, unfortunately, and both of the major books it’s been reprinted in are themselves out of print now. First we have Swanwick’s short story collection Gravity’s Angels, released in 1991 (also a major year for Swanwick) and comprising most of the short fiction from the first decade of his career. There’s also Gardner Dozois’s anthology The Good New Stuff, which focuses on adventure SF from the late ’70s to the late ’90s, and this would be combined with its predecessor, The Good Old Stuff, to form The Good Stuff. None of these are hard to find used; if I remember right I got The Good Stuff for no more than $15, which ain’t half bad considering it’s two anthologies in one. There’s also the more obscure anthology Bestiary!, co-edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, which collects stories about mythical creatures reappropriated in modern SFF fiction.

    Enhancing Coordinates

    We’re on a far-off planet where the Minotaur, a man with a bull’s head, is being guided by his supposed daughter Yarrow. We never learn the Minotaur’s name, but we soon learn that he is immensely strong and respected, or at least conscpicuous among the normal off-worlders. He’s also blind. Despite his lack of sight, though, his other senses are impeccable, having been heightened by his blindness. Even so, without his sight he needs help getting around.

    This was not the replacement world spoken of and promised to the blind. It was chaotic and bewildering, rich and contradictory in detail. The universe had grown huge and infinitely complex with the dying of the light, and had made him small and helpless in the process.

    The Minotaur is an immortal, which we don’t get a clear definition of at first, but we at least get the sense that he does not age, though apparently immortals can’t heal naturally. I feel like in this far-future setting it’d be possible to get eye implants, but whatever. Of course, it’s not entirely futuristic; the setting, which is not described in great detail, comes off almost more ancient than futuristic. Within a few pages I’m reminded of Roger Zelazny’s fiction, especially This Immortal and Lord of Light, not to mention Creatures of Light and Darkness, although “The Blind Minotaur” doesn’t straddle the line between SF and fantasy as much. What Swanwick also takes from Zelazny is a curious balance between elegant prose descriptions and a penchant for the vulgar; this story right here is poetic at times, but it’s also horny. Part of me wonders if, even in the ’80s, certain magazine editors had reservations about publishing sexually explicit content. George H. Scithers, then the editor for Amazing Stories, was by no means a prude, but his tenure at Asimov’s Science Fiction showed a lack of keenness for printing edgy material.

    While I do find it a bit eyebrow-raising that several women throughout hit up the Minotaur (I feel like having sex with a man who has a bull’s head would make one hesitate), in fairness it’s said that the Minotaur is pretty physically in shape. I mean, not that I’m not into that or anything, but Hank Jankus’s interior artwork paints the Minotaur as a snack, all things considered. Not helping matters is the fact that he’s mostly naked for the whole thing.

    We jump back and forth between the past and present, between the Minotaur’s current life as something akin to a bum, his daughter keeping him company, and his past as a vigorous circus performer, picking up babes and working with his friend and colleague, the Harlequin. The result is a story that feels more like two short-shorts in one, but both of these feel rather unfinished—not in the prose department, as Swanwick is excellent as always on a sentence-by-sentence level, but rather in how the Minotaur’s blindness rubs off on the reader. It could also be that I’m a big dummy and that there are vital pieces of information I missed that would, in fact, create a more complete and satisfying narrative.

    This is a story that’s both easy and hard to spoil, because Swanwick doesn’t let us in on what’s going on all the time. There’s enough material implied here for at least a novella, but at 15 pages, we’re only given what feels like mere glimpses into a bvast future world. We know that the Minotaur, the Harlequin, and the Woman are immortals, and being immortals apparently gives them both superhuman abilities and a certain privilege in a society where the vast majority of people are normal humans. The Harlequin, as befits his title, is something like a court jester, both the Minotaur’s best friend in his memories and something of a mischievous tormenter. Immortals don’t have names, but instead have titles; I’m not sure if the immortals picked their own titles or if the Lords (a highly advanced alien race we’re not given much info on) had bestowed these titles upon them.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    While the Minotaur is indeed blind during scenes set in the present, his memories of life before he lost his sight are relatively vivid, although there are still questions left unanswered. I never figured out why (at least on a first read) the Minotaur had killed the Harlequin, though there’s not much of a mystery as to why he would gouge his own eyes out. The closest I can come to finding an explanation is that it has to do with jealousy over the Woman (we’re never told what the Woman represents, but given that the Minotaur and the Harlequin are modeled after figures or archetypes, I suspect the Woman is a stand-in for the Biblical Eve). Despite his violent past, the Minotaur has become something of a mystic since then—not a messianic figure, but rather a monk who does not adhere strictly to a particular faith. Blinding himself seemed to unlock a door in his mind, and with it the Minotaur experienced what we might call violent transcendence, or a violent breakthrough. This is all an early attempt on Swanwick’s part to capture, in a way that strikes me as vaguely Catholic (think Flannery O’Connor), transcendence by way of physical brutality, and it’s by no means his last attempt.

    By the end of the story, the Minotaur has chilled out and accepted Yarrow as his daughter, if not biologically then spiritually. In their final scene together, we get reconcilitation between these characters, but we also get kind of a subtle info dump (more the shadow of an info dump than the real thing) about the Lords and the immortals, which up till now had been little more than mentioned in passing.

    Yarrow did not move away. There was a slight tremble in her voice when she spoke. “You still haven’t told me anything.”

    “Ah,” the Minotaur said. For a moment he was silent, mentally cataloging what she would need to know. The history of the Lords, to begin with. Their rise to power, how they had shaped and orchestrated the human psyche, and why they thought the human race had to be held back. She needed to know of the creches, of their bioprogramming chemicals, and of those immortals released from them who had gone on to become legend. She needed to know everything about the immortals, in fact, for the race had been all but exterminated in the Wars. And how the Lords had endured as long as they had. How their enemies had turned their toys against them. All the history of the Wars. It would not be a short telling.

    The Lords are implied to be a forerunner race which had uplifted humanity, or at least had helped guide humanity’s development. It’s also at this point that we’re all but told that the so-called immortals are genetically engineered humanoids (though I’m not sure if they’re normal humans that had been altered, or humans who were engineered to be this way from birth), with the Minotaur being one of them. The story’s ending is a somewhat open one, with the Minotaur, now reconciled with Yarrow, about to make a public speech to passersby about not his past in particular, but the past that led to his creation: the Lords, the wars which caused their downfall, the immortals, everything.

    If “The Blind Minotaur” doesn’t seem to have a beginning or end (you could shuffle some of these scenes around and wind up with the same effect), it may be because mythology itself is cyclical. The Minotaur itself is an ancient Greek mythological figure, with the head of a bull and the body of a man, and the Minotaur of Swanwick’s story does indeed strike me as being an acient figure himself; not only is his age ambiguous (though surely he must be very old), but his equally ancient worldview does not even run counter much with the future society he now lives in. Basically the only piece of clothing we see the Minotaur wear is a loincloth, and in flashbacks we find that he was also a circus performer, and perhaps more subtly, a male prostitute. Of course, circus performance is its own form of prostitution, and prostitution is often said to be the oldest profession. The distant past and the distant future have converged, resulting in a world where myth and reality have become indistinguishable.

    A Step Farther Out

    This story, as with a lot of Swanwick’s, is both allusive and elusive; we don’t get clear answers to the Minotaur’s backstory, as if the Minotaur losing his sight also affected his ability to remember his own past, his memories becoming interchangeable with his dreams. There is a great deal of implied lore, but due to the story’s length, along with the fact that it’s a standalone, we’re kept at arm’s length as to what the hell is going on behind the scenes. As such, we’re also not allowed to relate to the Minotaur too much, since his ability to both operate in the present and recall his past is crippled. Swanwick would (I would say more successfully) experiment further with commenting on myth with far-future settings in his later works, especially Stations of the Tide (itself a retelling of Shakepeare’s The Tempest). At this point in his career, Swanwick’s ambitions were becoming clear, though it’s clear that he was trying to iron out the wrinkles in his technique.

    “The Blind Minotaur” catches Swanwick when his influences are at their most overt. For one he’s a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and this had been apparent since the beginning; less apparent are the debts he owes to Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany, although “The Blind Minotaur” stands as practically an homage to both. In his introduction to the story in The Good New Stuff, Dozois notes Swanwick’s inventiveness as well as his nods to Dick, Zelazny, and Delany.

    Another big influence on Swanwick, as on [Bruce] Sterling, was clearly the early work of Samuel R. Delany; this is especially clear with the evocative story that follows, “The Blind Minotaur,” which rings with strong echoes of Delany’s work, particularly The Einstein Intersection—although, as always, Swanwick has changed the melody line and the orchestration and the fingering to make the material uniquely his own.”

    Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and Zelazny’s This Immortal and Lord of Light are SF novels that transfer mythical and/or religious figures to settings where they very much don’t belong; in the Delany, for instance, the non-human characters (humanity itself having died out a long time ago) take the forms of human mythological figures in an effort to make sense of the now-dead culture. “The Blind Minotaur” is indeed evocative, but it’s also often ambiguous, and Swanwick seemed to leave his world deliberately unfinished, with a lot of holes left in the background. After a first reading I can’t say I entirely made sense of it, but I did enjoy it, and a like much of Swanwick’s work I suspect it’ll only get stronger upon rereading and further reflection.

    See you next time.

  • Serial Review: If This Goes On— by Robert Heinlein (Part 2/2)

    (Cover by Gilmore. Astounding, March 1940.)

    Who Goes There?

    Need I introduce you to Robert Heinlein again? You probably know him already, either by reputation or because you’ve read a portion of his considerable body of work. Heinlein debuted in 1939 and became the most popular writer of SF in just a couple years; he remains the only person aside from John W. Campbell to have been made Guest of Honor at Worldcon three times. People love and hate him—occasionally at the same time! Yet he remains a seminal figure, most of his work remains very much in print, and at his best he continues to teach us. If This Goes On— was Heinlein’s longest story up to that point, and when it was serialized in February and March 1940, it was revolutionary in both its content and its impact.

    Curiously, despite its themes, If This Goes On— has never been so much as nominated for induction in the Prometheus Hall of Fame, although its sequel, “Coventry,” is an inductee. I have to assume this is because the libertarian revolution thing was already well-covered with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which is, after all, far more advanced, more complicated, and more enjoyable than its precursor. It did, however, win the Retro Hugo for Best Novella of 1940, beating out no less than two other Heinlein novellas (the aforementioned “Coventry” along with “Magic, Inc.”) along with the first two Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, “The Roaring Trumpet” and “The Mathematics of Magic.” Did it deserve the win? I’m gonna say no. For one thing, even if we’re comparing the Heinlein novellas, “Magic, Inc.” is no less inventive while also packing a tighter narrative thrust, and a good sense of humor to boot. Really the whole shortlist could’ve been from Unknown, as its contents have aged more gracefully by and large than what came out of Astounding.

    There are a couple Heinlein biographies out there, but if you want more insight into the man’s early career then I highly recommend Alexei and Cory Panshin’s unrivaled tome on the Golden Age of SF, The World Beyond the Hill, which focuses more on Heinlein’s artistic evolution, and also Alec Nevala-Lee’s much more recent book Astounding, which focuses more on Heinlein as a person. The former especially illuminates us about the place If This Goes On— holds in SF’s history, it being the first of Heinlein’s great experiments, not only cementing what would be known as his Future History but also paving the way for a kind of SF which genuinely anticipates future possibilities based on current trends. In other words, it would serve as a foundational document for Campbellian SF.

    Placing Coordinates

    The March 1940 issue of Astounding is on the Archive. I’m not sure where else the magazine version of If This Goes On— appears. I know Heinlein went back and revised it a decade or so later for inclusion in the collection Revolt in 2100, and if what I’m reading here is correct, the changes were indeed substantial. Still, it was the magazine version which won the Retro Hugo (though it wouldn’t surprise me if voters were going off the Revolt in 2100 version), and if you can believe it, Part 2 is even shorter than Part 1. I would have to guess that, when the parts are combined, we have a longish novella of about 35,000 words. Two-part serials are a tricky thing, because depending on the magazine (we’re talking type size, margins, overall dimensions), a two-part serial could total anywhere from as low as 20,000 words (a novella, but barely) to 50,000 words or more (a full novel). If only there was an easy way to calculate all this.

    Enhancing Image

    You may recall that at the end of Part 1, John Lyle, our brave hero, had gone undergone with someone else’s identity—a ruse that lasted all of about five minutes. Soon enough he’s on the run again! The opening stretch of Part 2 is an extended chase scene, with John hijacking a ship and blazing through several states in the west and midwest.

    Provo is not a particularly large town and might not be expected to have a particularly alert police force, but Utah has been a center of heresy and schism ever since the Mormon Church was suppressed, during the lifetime of the First Prophet.

    Once again we come across maybe the most interesting part of If This Goes On—, and it’s actually not territory that Heinlein would return to for many years (although he had started working on Stranger in a Strange Land in the ’40s), which is the topic of religion. I was surprised to find an overt reference to Mormonism here, for one because it’s a pretty divisive sect, and also because it’s a pretty obscure sect, very few people would know anything factually correct about it, let alone anyone who was a practicing Mormon (though it must be noted that contemporary SF author Raymond F. Jones, who we might cover eventually, was a Mormon). It also further establishes a link between the future world of the story and the current reality, or you know, what would’ve been the current reality in 1940.

    Part 2 of If This Goes On— is hard to summarize, not because so much happens, but because not enough happens. Let’s look at this another way: in Part 1, we have a quartet of characters, with John, Judith, Zebadiah, and Magdalene, and while the plot was moving at a mile a minute, we at least got some character growth, never mind interactions. In Part 2, Zebadiah is barely here, and I hope you weren’t invested in John and Judith’s romance, because I don’t think Judith has even a single line of dialogue here. Even John himself becomes somehow less of a character; not unlike Ishmael, who basically evaporates midway through Moby Dick, John takes a back seat as an active character while also giving us details on events he probably wouldn’t know about firsthand. When I finished Part 1, I was worried that the super-fast pacing of that first part would, at some point, result in the narrative having to stop dead in its tracks from sheer exhaustion, and my fears were proven right. Part 2 is far less entertaining, far less interesting, and ultimately feels less finished than what came before it.

    You see, once John meets up with his favorite weed dealer a fellow member of the Cabal, his direct role in the narrative is basically over; he can sit back, relax, and watch the fireworks. Well, he does get to do one more thing, but I’ll save that for spoilers. Point being, the narrative turns mostly third-person from then on, and all the character stuff from Part 1 has been thrown at the window. Now, if Part 1 was about Our Hero™ getting introduced to the revolution, then Part 2 is about the revolution actually happening, and in this case the setup is better than the payoff. As it turns out, when you try to capture a whole goddamn socio-political movement from a first-person perspective, and in the span of as a short a novel as this one, you’re probably gonna lose something there, like basic fucking character. Heinlein would try this again much later with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and a good deal more successfully; that novel is a real chef’s kiss, in part because it’s mostly dialogue and not much action.

    The Cabal, which John had theorized in Part 1 as being an ancient underground society with its own traditions, turns out to be just that. Indeed, the Cabal is all but said to have descended from the Freemasons, that old chestnut of conspiracy theories. Shocking, and yet not shocking at all, is the realization that the Cabal, while not having millions of people in its employ, is highly organized, to the point of having its own military.

    The system of gigantic caverns called General Headquarters is located southeast of Phoenix, about thirty miles from the Mexican border. It had been in use for more than twenty years and had grown from a hideaway for fugitive brethren into a complete, modern military base. It had a dozen different entrances separated by miles of desert terrain, each entrance carefully concealed and protected by sensitive eye and ear devices and by automatic mines capable of destroying all trace of the tunnels that led to GHQ.

    Even so, with hundreds of people in on this, and with some ex-military in the resistance, the Cabal would not be able to take on the Prophet’s forces in a one-on-one battle. As it turns out, this is only a mild inconvenience, but more on that later; admittedly the Cabal’s solution here is kind of ingenious. Anyway, we have the beginnings of an all-out war, or at least a curb stomp on a nationwide scale, but don’t get too excited since this is, after all, written from John’s now-ghostly perspective, after everything’s been said and done. Not very tense, is it? You could say The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress runs into this problem as well, but at least with that novel there’s a lot more to chew on other than the revolution itself. The worldbuilding so prevalent in Part 1 has now largely been put aside, in favor of action, except it’s action that’s not particularly appetizing to read, simply for the fact that John is now removed from it, and we’re given what amounts to half a novel’s worth of combat in about 15 pages. It’s very short, to the point of feeling emaciated.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    How does the Cabal plan to gather enough people to take on the Prophet? By tricking people across the country into thinking the Prophet sitting in New Jerusalem is an impostor, of course! The process of doing this is a bit convoluted in how it’s explained, and reading this is a post-Trump post-truth era definitely makes this all seem a little implausible, but I do like the idea of tricking people into thinking the fake Prophet is the real Prophet and vice versa. If only it were this easy to convince people to wear masks in HOSPITALS. I’m digressing, though. People across the country rebel against what they see as a false idol, indirectly doing the Cabal’s bidding while the Cabal itself is putting what troops it has into action. The way the revolution works out in this story feels weirdly truncated and multi-faceted at the same time, since it’s not so simple as the Cabal telling people the Prophet is a corrupt asshole and everyone just buying into it, but I also find it hard to believe people would get bamboozled by the Cabal this easily.

    Aside from the revolution itself, there’s also the problem (which I suppose I should credit Heinlein for considering in the first place) of what to do about the millions of people who are loyal followers of the Prophet. This is where we get to a passage that really bothers me, and I guess it just goes to show that no matter where you land in Heinlein’s long and winding career you’re bound to find something that’s problematic. In this case it’s something so stupid and backwards on its face that even Heinlein himself, when he went back to revise If This Goes On— for Revolt in 2100 over a decade later, felt the need to rebut it. Get a load of this:

    You can see that we had our work cut out for us, and that we did not dare hurry. More than a hundred million persons had to be examined to see if they could stand up under quick re-orientation, then re-examined after treatment to see if they had sufficiently readjusted. Until a man passed the second examination we could not afford to enfranchise him as a free citizen of a democratic state. We had to teach them to think for themselves, reject dogma, be suspicious of authority, tolerate difference of opinion, and make their own decisions—types of mental processes almost unknown in the United States for many generations.

    Keep in mind that Heinlein, in 1939, was a flaming liberal, to the point where he was arguably a fellow traveler to the leftist movement of the period (he had worked on Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor in 1934), so this is a bit jarring to see. Remember, however, that this is also pre-Maoist China, so it’s probably safe to assume that Heinlein was blissfully ignorant of the horrors that would necessarily come from re-education camps, not to mention the gross scale of the government apparatus required for such an effort. It’s uncomfortable to read now, given that to this day there’s a small but vocal portion of the American leftist population that thinks concentration re-education camps would be gosh darn neat. According to The World Beyond the Hill (as I’ve not read Revolt in 2100), Heinlein had evidently changed his mind on the whole brainwashing thing, inserting a bit character to decry the Cabal’s proposition of mass re-education.

    It’s clear that Heinlein, regardless of when we find him, was always chiefly concerned with individual liberty—that the individual’s right to autonomy ought to be highly respected, and in this sense he was always philosophically libertarian. A problem that would always haunt Heinlein’s writing, though, is that his penchant for didacticism (and make no mistake, even some of his most disciplined works contain lectures) results in his actual beliefs getting shuffled with ideas he is merely putting forward for discussion. For instance, it should be clear to anyone with more than two brain cells that Heinlein is not actually advocating for ritual cannibalism in Stranger in a Strange Land, but it can be hard to tell at first since he throws in that devil’s-advocate argument with his genuine arguments for polyamory and nudism. Even with an early and well-rounded story like “The Roads Must Roll,” some people take that piece as anti-union, when it is in fact very much pro-union, being rather about corruption within what is otherwise a fine power structure. Some people, being sycophants, see even the most reasonable criticisms of unions as slander, but that’s their problem.

    I’m digressing again. In all honesty I find Heinlein’s career far more interesting to talk about than Part 2 of If This Goes On—, and really I find this novella’s place in said career more interesting than the novella itself. There is one last thing I wanna bring up, though. There’s a question which probably no one asked up till now, but which is not necessarily a bad question: Why has John been writing all this? Well, another thing this story has in common with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is that the narrator also acts as an amateur historian; what we’ve been reading is actually a historical record about the revolution that John wrote after the fact. Oh, and he ends up with Judith, so there’s that. Another difference between the magazine version and the Revolt in 2100 version is that in the latter, John and Judith do not end up together, with John instead going with Magdalene at the end. Why not? It’s not like Judith had literally anything to do in the second half of the magazine verson. It’s just as well—maybe better—and hell, Heinlein may well have improved his story for book publication.

    A Step Farther Out

    I was worried that If This Goes On— was gonna let me down in its second half, and I’m sad to say it did, which is not to say it suddenly took a nosedive. There are some sprinkles of worldbuilding here that reminded me that Heinlein, impressively so for this early in his career, knew what he was doing with regards to mapping out what would become his Future History. The notion that the US, in a time not too far from ours, could fall to Christian fascism, is concerning and believable, and I was actually surprised by the more implied but still unmistakable notion that the generations of religious persecution which defined the country’s history would logically result in a Christian cult running the government—maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps a decade from now. We seem to be halfway there already. Heinlein was a supporter of religious freedom throughout his life, and while I do think the whole “the good Christians overthrow the bad Christians” thing is a bit of a copout, I can’t say it’s not plausible. That there aren’t any explicitly irreligious characters in the story is maybe more due to the social norms then being enforced in the magazine publishing business at the time.

    I wouldn’t call If This Goes On— great by any means; it strikes me as too clunky, too lopsided in its pacing, and ultimately too conventional to be considered that. Upon rereading sections of The World Beyond the Hill (to refresh my memory), it now strikes me as unsurprising that Heinlein wrote “Requiem” after If This Goes On— and not before, given it feels like the work of an artist one step closer to perfecting his craft. Still, this is mandatory for Heinlein completionists, and even for those who just want a thorough understanding of how a master of the field got to where he was. I’m sure that without the great experiment of If This Goes On— we would not have gotten better long works from Heinlein in that first phase of his career, such as “Magic, Inc.” and “By His Bootstraps.” As such, it’s an important story, but not one I’m likely to read again.

    See you next time.

  • Novella Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

    (Cover by Julie Dillon. Uncanny, March/April 2017.)

    Who Goes There?

    Sarah Pinsker debuted in 2012 with her short story “Not Dying in Central Texas,” and ten years later she’s still going at it. She won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for her 2013 short story “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” and she would win her first Nebula in 2016 for “Our Lady of the Open Road.” Okay, now put a pin in that last one. Pinsker would win another Nebula for her debut novel A Song for a New Day, and her second novel, We Are Satellites, came out just last year from Berkley Books. If I sound a bit like an encyclopedia right now, it’s because unfortunately I’ve not read any of these. I know, I’m stupid. But better late than never! Her novella “And Then There Were (N-One)” was nominated for seemingly every award under the sun, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and so on. This is a weird and yet illuminating introduction to Pinsker, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

    Pinsker is known to us as an SFF writer, but she’s also a productive musician, being part of the indie band Stalking Horses. My God, she’s a horse girl. As I’m writing this, her short story “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is up for this year’s Hugo for Best Short Story, and given that it already won the Nebula its chances of also taking home the most famous award in the field are not low. I recommend checking out her website for updates and other things.

    Placing Coordinates

    “And Then There Were (N-One)” was first published online in the March/April 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. This issue also contains an interview with Pinsker which coincides with the story, and for the sake of convenience I’ll link it here as well. Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering about where you can find this novella in book form; the good news is that we have a few options. Firstly there’s Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, and last I checked it’s still in print. There’s also Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, which also contains the aforementioned award-winning stories “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” and “Our Lady of the Open Road.” If you wanna play this reprint game on Hard Mode, may I suggest the bulky best-of anthology The Best of Uncanny? I say it’s Hard Mode because not only is it not in print, but it’s a limited edition set. That’s right, we’re looking at over $70 for this bad boy. Then again, you’re doing this book-only reprint thing more for collection’s sake than for just being able to read the story.

    Enhancing Image

    We start with Sarah Pinsker being invited to a convention. That’s right, the protagonist/narrator is Sarah Pinsker, though as we soon realize, she’s not our Sarah Pinsker. So, Sarah gets invited to SarahCon, a Comic Con or Worldcon-like affair being held on a secluded island off the coast of Canada, for reasons that’ll be explained later. SarahCon is a convention where all of the attendees are Sarah Pinskers from alternate universes. That’s right, this is a multiverse story; I can’t help but wonder what Pinsker would’ve done differently with the premise had she written it in 2022 and not 2016, given how much of a meme (to the point of being honestly tiresome) the whole multiverse thing has become since then. Naturally Sarah (the in-story Sarah) is skeptical about such an outlandish event, but her wife Mabel (who is apparently Pinsker’s wife IRL, more on that later) convinces her, and quickly enough we’re off to the races.

    At SarahCon, Sarah finds alternate versions of herself by the dozens—some of them made most of the same choices she did, some are younger, some are older, many of them having different professions (there’s at least one Sarah who’s a rabbi), and yet conspicuously, none of these Sarahs are too different from each other. We never, for instance, get a “Sarah” who is actually a cis man, nor do we get an AMAB trans Sarah (I could be wrong), nor do we get any Sarahs who come from alternate universes whose timelines are radically different. Aside from diverging in a select number of events, all the Sarahs seem to come from recognizably the same United States and/or Canada. The biggest divergence, at least in terms of big-picture history, between the Sarahs is the fate of Seattle, which either turns out fine or gets wrecked to hell and back by a severe earthquake. We never get a Sarah who comes from a world that was conquered by Martians. Sad.

    The list grouped us by surname first. Mine the most common, a trunk instead of a branch. I paged past, curious. Mostly Pinskers like myself. Made sense if we were the closest realities to the Pinsker who had invited us. There were other random surnames I chalked up to marriage. A full page of Sarah Sweetloves. I’d never really considered changing my name for anyone, even Mabel, but apparently others had.

    After surname came city, divided evenly between Seattle, Toronto, and Baltimore, with a few outliers in Northampton, Somerville, Asheville, New York, Pretoria. After that came birthdate, occupation. The occupation list read like a collection of every “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d ever answered. Geneticist, writer, therapeutic riding instructor, teacher, history professor, astronomer, journalist, dog trainer, barn manager. I was the only insurance investigator. In fairness, it had never exactly been on the greatest hits list.

    We know the Sarah telling the story isn’t ours because she’s not an SFF writer, but an insurance investigator. I don’t know what the hell that means. Something that’s about as mysterious to me is the fictitious occupation of quantologist, though it’s all but said outright that quantology has to do with the study of alternate universes, and there’s a team of Sarahs at the con who are quantologists. It is worth mentioning again, albeit with different phrasing, that these Sarahs attending SarahCon have many traits in common, and we can gather from these shared traits what kind of person Pinsker—not to take shots at her or anything, of course, this is all in good fun. Aside from being a horse girl (the most Lovecraftian of girls), Pinsker is big on farm life generally; she’s also, unsurprisingly, big on writing in some form, be it fiction writing, songwriting, or screenwriting.

    It’s possible that, much like communism, this is all a red herring, but digging into Pinsker’s background (which admittedly wasn’t a lot of digging) leads me to believe good chunks of the autobiographical info we get are actually autobiographical, though obviously there are a lot of non-facts that would belong to alternate Sarahs, including the narrator. The fun of reading “And Then There Were (N-One)” is mostly two-pronged: we get a meta story (though it’s not as meta as it at first appears) about the author herself taking up about 95% of the cast, as well as a fictional depiction of a con, and don’t we love those? I find the first half of the story the most enjoyable simply because there’s basically no urgency; we’re allowed to take in the ridiculousness of the situation and Sarah gets to have some slice-of-life conversations with other Sarahs (whom she names depending on physical differences about them, like a Sarah wearing a No Good Deeds band shirt being called No Good Deeds).

    Oh, and there are references to SFF culture, because of course there are, though since Narrator!Sarah is not into SFF herself, the references are not too obvious. It’s not like we’re being subjected to cries of “Aha yes, I too am a woman of culture,” but I have to admit these things did often get this reaction out of me.

    Concerns assuaged, I dumped my backpack’s contents onto the table and repacked the stuff I wanted to carry with me for the evening, then flopped onto the bed to read the program. It contained a basic explanation of the multiverse theory, a welcome note, a sponsor page, a thank you page, a map, and “Fun Statistics!” based on the questionnaires we’d filled out prior to arriving. Ninety two percent of us played instruments. Five percent of us owned horses, thirteen percent owned cats, eighty percent owned dogs. One person lived in a world where dogs had been rendered extinct by a virus. So much for fun.

    Is that last part a reference to Connie Willis’s novella “The Last of the Winnebagos”? I’ve got my eye on you, Sarah.

    “And There Were (N-One)” is definitely a novella, clocking in at 23,786 words; even so, it feels more like a novelette than a proper novella, which is far from a bad thing. It’s an undemanding read, both because the plot only really demands half the story’s length and also because Narrator!Sarah is a very likable and readable protagonist. First-person narratives, at their best, often (not always) feel like we’re getting to know the narrator on a personal level, and ultimately I did end up wondering how much Narrator!Sarah and our Sarah diverge, since I felt like I was getting to know Pinsker as a person to an extent. On the one hand I hope she doesn’t check out this review, but I also want her to know that I think she’s quite the wordsmith—not in terms of crafting complicated sentences or coming up with delightful metaphors, but rather in keeping the reader thoroughly engaged. Her inventiveness combined with her colloquialism reminds me of John Varley, or at least early Varley. The title is clearly referencing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but tonally I was far more reminded of one of my favorite Varley stories, “The Phantom of Kansas.”

    Which reminds me—this is a murder mystery.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    Narrator!Sarah investigates a disturbance in the nightclub area of the building and finds a corpse, and not just any corpse: one of the Sarah quantologists, or so it seems. The death is reported, and soon Sarah discovers firsthand that the death could not have been natural, and likely was not accidental, for the back of the dead Sarah’s head must’ve been hit with some kind of blunt instrument. There’s no policewoman or private detective among the crowd, and due to a storm coming in, authorities won’t be able to arrive until later. Since Narrator!Sarah is an insurance investigator she’s the closest thing they’ve got to figuring out whodunnit. Aside from being an Agatha Christie reference, the title is the way it is because there’s only one victim, and we don’t know the number of Sarahs attending SarahCon, hence N – One. Finding a motive proves difficult, since the workers at the hotel (who are not Sarahs themselves, mind you) don’t have any conceivable motive to kill one of the attendees, and Narrator!Sarah has a hard time imagining herself as a killer.

    So, motive, and also the method. When looking for possible murder weapons our improvised sleuth goes through some items held for presentation at a Show & Tell section (which is just cute), and we get something we know our Sarah would have: the Nebula Award.

    As I touched the award, I felt a strange certainty this was it. That if I were to murder someone, which I absolutely wouldn’t do, this would be the weapon of choice. Not the mic stands, not the chairs, not the turntable case: this glittering block that would travel back to another reality at the end of the weekend with its owner none the wiser. I shuddered and shook the thought off.

    To be fair, you could very feasibly kill someone with one of those.

    Now, the question as to who killed the quantologist is really not hard to solve, though there are a couple twists. For one thing, the quantologist who had her head bashed in is not in fact a quantologist—she’s the DJ who was set to play at the nightclub. Somebody had swapped clothes with her while nobody was looking. But why? Another easy answer when you think about it. The Sarahs at SarahCon are mostly similar, if not almost the exact same. Suppose, however, that one Sarah who knew about the background of another Sarah saw her as a good target to swap places with? Suppose a Sarah who has had a shitty life mostly due to circumstance were to swap with a Sarah who had mostly screwed her own life up? The Seattle earthquake is a big divergence point, and also a plausible motive; you’d have a Sarah who lost loved ones in the earthquake swapping with someone who came from an alternate universe where Seattle didn’t suffer that natural disaster.

    You also have Sarahs who are with Mabel and those who aren’t; a surprisingly large portion of the Sarahs are with Mabel. Which, okay, fine. Personally I find it hard to believe, just because you could sneeze and probably end up with a different person, but it’s not like this is a story which calls for realism or even plausibility. While Narrator!Sarah finding the killer hinges on the Sarahs differing in mostly subtle ways, as opposed to massive differences, I can’t help but feel like Pinsker willfully ignored the opportunity to go totally bonkers with the idea. I also can’t help but feel like the ending is a bit of a copout, even though I understand why thematically it makes sense. It’s sort of an open ending; we don’t know if Narrator!Sarah will turn in the killer/impostor. There are, of course, at least two choices Narrator!Sarah could make here that would then (theoretically, anyway) result in two different Sarahs, and so on and so on, and she openly recognizes this.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the sequence of events with the murder mystery is logical in itself, but it’s hindered by maybe being too logical. Of the novella’s 23,000+ words, it seems like relatively few are actually spent on solving the mystery, and that’s because the mystery is by no means complicated, nor is it the most gripping part of the narrative. If anything I wish we’d spent a few thousand more words exploring the many possibilities of the convention, having some fun with the many Sarahs, maybe get in on a panel (there’s apparently one on gender, but we don’t get to hear anything about it). Of course, having it turn into a wacky slice of life would require basically writing a different story altogether, and I do like very much what I like about it.

    A Step Farther Out

    There’s a plot-important reason for why the Sarahs at the SarahCon are all so similar when you get down to it, but I can’t help but feel like Pinsker held herself back from having more fun with what is (let’s face it) an inherently silly premise. Like why not go nuts with it? It’s possible, of course, that Everything Everywhere All At Once spoiled me on the whole multiverse thing, since that movie basically takes it to the logical extreme, but what if there was a different Sarah Pinsker who made the decision to turn “And then There Were (N-One)” into an outright comedy? Though conversely there would also be a Sarah Pinsker who made it more serious, which is such a horrid idea I dare not think it. I’m honestly surprised this didn’t get the Hugo, because it seems like exactly the kind of story Hugo voters (i.e., Worldcon attendees) would latch onto, but I’m also saying this because it’s quite a fun read. Pinsker may not make 100% use of her premise, but this is something that could easily devolve into bullshit.

    The decision to have Narrator!Sarah not be our Sarah is a key one; first off, I imagine it was a challenge (albeit a fun challenge) to devise a version of yourself who is much the same as yourself, but different in ways that are often subtle. I’m reminded of Lunar Park, in which Bret Easton Ellis is both author and protagonist, but past some initial biographical similarities Ellis the narrator turns out to be a decidedly different person from Ellis the author. Another key decision is that while it’s implied our Sarah is one of the many attendees at SarahCon, we never run into her—at least not as far as we can tell. There are enough degrees of separation to keep the self-reflexive aspect while also not coming off as a painful self-insert. Yes, it’s solipsistic just by virtue of its existence, but it doesn’t turn into the author patting themselves on the back (okay, there’s a little back-patting, but I’ll let it slide), and hell, Pinsker knows what she’s doing. I guess that’s the highest praise I can give this novella, aside from its entertainment value: Pinsker knows what she’s doing.

    See you next time.

  • Things Beyond (September 2022)

    (Cover by Larry Elmore. Amazing Stories, March 1985.)

    Picking material to review for this month has been way more agonizing than I expected. Whereas I had August’s lineup nailed down fairly early on, I kept switching things around for September until just a couple days ago. I’m posting every few days, and I’m all but guaranteed to cover at least one whole serial each month, but consider how much SFF has been published in the past century. I started this blog with magazine publication as the main criterion for selecting stories because I thought it’d be a useful enough funnel, but as it turns out, there’s too much to go around! So many stories worth checking out by so many authors across such a long span of time, and I can only review this many per month?

    Yet I’m nothing if not persistent, and also dumb.

    We have a serial to finish this month, plus a whole new one. I try to find stuff from other magazines, but the truth is that Astounding was the king of serials from the mid-’30s until around the time its name was changed to Analog, and even then it tended to run the most noteworthy serials in a given year. To compensate, we have short fiction which is very much not from Astounding/Analog, and with one exception (you’ll soon see), I’ve not read any of these before. These are totally new experiences to me. There’s the possibility that I won’t like them, which I hope won’t be the case. The point of this blog is to dive into works by the notable minds of SFF, some famous, many forgotten, and see if maybe we can get at the heart of these things, be they from half a century ago or just last week.

    Now, time for the serials:

    1. If This Goes On— by Robert Heinlein. Published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction, February to March 1940. We read Part 1 last month, and now we’re finally finishing this. Will I ultimately think Heinlein’s early novella was worthy of its Retro Hugo win, or will I think it’s merely decent? Stay tuned.
    2. The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson. Published in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction, May to July 1938. Despite what its title might tell you this is not part of Williamson’s Legion of Space series, but is a standalone short novel. I really like Williamson’s “With Folded Hands…” as well as his werewolf novella “Darker Than You Think,” so I wanna see how he does in a longer mode.

    Now for the novellas. We have two this month, like in August (only being able to review two novellas makes me weep inside), and one is a certified classic while the other is looking to become a modern classic:

    1. “And Then There (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. First published in the March/April 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. The SFF novella has, in recent years, mostly been banished from the ‘zines, as online magazines aren’t keen on printing novellas, but Uncanny is an exception. Sarah Pinsker is very much alive and well, though sadly I’ve not read anything by her before. I hope she doesn’t mind if I stumble into this one blindly, but if what I’ve been hearing about her award-nominated novella is accurate at all then I have nothing to fear!
    2. “The Star-Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. First published in the February 1967 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. I try not to gush about authors I love from the outset, but I think Delany is one of the best to ever do it. Babel-17? Classic. Nova? Classic. Dhalgren? One of my all-time favorites. And Delany could be as vigorous a short fiction writer as he is a novelist, as short stories like “Driftglass” and “Corona” prove. I’ve read “The Star-Pit” before and I’ll gladly read it again. Delany is an artist of alarming brilliance, and his work demands close attention.

    Finally, the short stories:

    1. “The Blind Minotaur” by Michael Swanwick. Published in the March 1985 issue of Amazing Stories. Yes, Amazing Stories was still around in the ’80s, and was still releasing some damn good stuff. Swanwick himself debuted in 1980, so he could be considered a bit of an old-timer, but there’s nothing old-hat about this man, for his fiction is often vigorous, intellectual, entertaining, and even mystical at times. His 1991 novel Stations of the Tide recently became one of my favorites, and yet I look forward to reading more of his many short stories.
    2. “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear. Published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Elizabeth Bear is one of the great practitioners of SFF to have come about in the past two decades, showing herself to be equally adept at both long and short form, as well as fantasy and science fiction (with a touch of horror mayhaps). She won back-to-back Hugos for her short stories “Tideline” (which I’ve read before) and the story that I’ve selected to cover this month (which I have not). Her graciousness knows no bounds.

    I’ve decided to stick more with contemporary voices for September; of the six authors mentioned, four are still with us and active in the field to some extent. Delany has not written SFF with regularity in many years now, his work in academia has been immense, and recent lectures and interviews have show that his great mind has not withered even one bit. I must confess that part of my wants to always dig myself a hole and barracade myself with works by authors I already like, with authors I’m already familiar with, but we have one author here (Pinsker) whom I’ve not read anything by before, and I gotta say, I’m excited. Few things are more invigorating than potentially discovering a new favorite author, especially one who’s still currently making their way through the field.

    Now you might be thinking, do I have anything special in mind for October? Why yes, I do. Halloween is my favorite holiday by a country mile and I intend to go all-out with it, but we’ll just have to wait for that.

    Won’t you read with me?

  • Short Story Review: “With Morning Comes Mistfall” by George R. R. Martin

    (Cover by Jack Gaughan. Analog, May 1973.)

    Who Goes There?

    Indeed who. George R. R. Martin is one of the most famous authors in the world today; even people who don’t read books at all (the poor devils) probably recognize him. In 1996 he began the series that would make him a household name, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, a landmark title in low fantasy with five books so far and a sixth coming out… at some point. On top of being famous, Martin has also become infamous for, among other things, seemingly refusing to release the last two volumes of his series, and while Martin obviously isn’t obligated to finish his work for anyone else’s sake, one can’t help but get a sense that there’s a cynical motive at play here. Regardless, unless something disastrous happens—like, say, Martin coming out as a rabid homophobe or transphobe—this man’s legacy is more or less settled.

    There’s just one problem, though: it’s not.

    Martin’s uber-success with A Song of Ice and Fire has had the perverse effect of all but burying the fact that he was one of the most promising writers of science fiction to debut in the ’70s. Hitting the professional scene with “The Hero” in 1971, Martin would be nominated for the inaugural John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer, losing to Jerry Pournelle, and the nomination was well-earned! By 1973 he showed himself to be a lyrical and emotional earnest author, not letting hard science get in the way of strong character writing and evocative imagery. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” was, according to the Thousand Worlds fandom wiki (more on that in a bit), written in the summer of 1971 before being published in the May 1973 issue of Analog Science Fiction. Despite appearing at first to be just another short story, “With Morning Comes Mistfall” would go on to earn Martin his first Hugo and Nebula nominations, and as we’re about to see those nominations are very much earned.

    Now, ISFDB lists “If Morning Comes Mistfall” as a standalone story, which it functionally is. However, the aforementioned Thousand Worlds fandom wiki has an article on the story, listing it as part of that shared continuity. Does it make a difference if it’s part of the Thousand Worlds series? Not really. I just think it’s funny whenever the people who run ISFDB disagree with somebody. Get a load of this:

    The Thousand Worlds wiki lists this as part of that series, although by their own admission it is “only a tenuous link” based on a planet name also referenced in a different story in that series.

    You don’t see that kind of note on ISFDB a lot.

    Placing Coordinates

    This issue of Analog is…… NOT on the Archive.

    I know, I’m sorry! If you want it you’re gonna have to get a used copy the old-fashioned way. I guess there’s also Luminist, but I don’t find their layout to be as intuitive, you can’t view an issue in-browser, and most importantly… their PDFs tend to be HUGE. Like we’re talking 100 megabytes or bigger, so big that you can’t even preview the file you’re about to download. It’s like I’ve entered an alternate timeline where file compression isn’t a thing.

    On the bright side, it’s not like “With Morning Comes Mistfall” has only been reprinted two times. It showed up in the collection A Song for Lya, which covers a good deal of Martin’s ’70s output, and of course it appeared in some anthologies from that period, such as the third volume of Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. If you want a recent reprint, and assuming you don’t mind putting in a few more dollars, we have the first volume of Dreamsongs, which covers most of the material in A Song for Lya as well as additional stories.

    Enhancing Image

    Normally I don’t pay mind to story blurbs, but this one (not sure if it was written by Martin or editor Ben Bova) caught my attention:

    Man’s curiosity drives him to seek the answer to every question. But it’s the unanswered questions which are the most exciting.

    It’s about as succinct a mission statement as you can get, all while giving absolutely none of the plot away. Not that there’s much of a plot to begin with. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is a hard story to spoil because it’s far more driven by characters and themes than by the movements of its narrative, which themselves are not hard to anticipate. It’s a very simple story, but it’s also Campbellian in the best way possible, in the sense that implies the existence of something great that was previously outside the realm of human knowledge; you could call it secular mysticism. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” could have very feasibly been printed in Campbell’s Analog, and this seems to be the mode in which Martin wrote his eariest professional-grade fiction. The result is a story which lacks characteristics we would now associate with Martin; there’s no foul language, nothing too violent happens, and female characters aren’t being forced into sexually degrading situations.

    But more on that later.

    With all that said, I’ll try my best to give you something of a plot summary, and for better or worse, the spoiler section will be pretty short this time around. So…

    A journalist travels to the desolate planet of Wraithworld, a planet that remains almost entirely uninhabited. There’s only one human establishment on the whole planet, that being Castle Cloud, a hotel and casino owned by Paul Sanders. The journalist has come to talk to Sanders about the wraiths, a supposed mythical species lurking the depths of the mist-covered landscape. Nobody has ever gotten concrete evidence that that wraiths exist, but much like Bigfoot or the Jersey Devil, their mysteriousness makes them a magnet for tourism; while the sights of Wraithworld are nothing to sneeze at, people largely come for the wraiths. What I’m trying to say is that this story is about cryptids, which immediately makes it up my alley.

    Sanders is a bit of a subversive character; despite being a business owner, and being described physically as rather rotund (something often attributed stereotypically to greedy businessmen), Sanders turns out to not be of that sort. The journalist quickly finds that Sanders is indeed taken by the mysterious beauty of Wraithworld. When the journalist notes the rising of the mists over the mountain range (Castle Cloud was built on the highest peak), we get this:

    “Is it always like this?” I asked Sanders, after drinking it all in for a while.

    “Every mistfall,” he replied, turning toward me with a wistful smile. He was a fat man, with a jovial red face. Not the sort who should smile wistfully. But he did.

    He gestured toward the east, where Wraithworld’s sun rising above the mists made a crimson and orange spectacle of the dawn sky.

    “The sun,” he said. “As it rises, the heat drives the mists back into the valleys, forces them to surrender the mountains they’ve conquered during the night. The mists sink, and one by one the peaks come into view. By noon the whole range is visible for miles and miles. There’s nothing like it on Earth, or anywhere else.”

    The conflict comes in when Charles Dubowski, a renowned scienist, comes to Castle Cloud, and he too is here for the wraiths. More specifically Dubowski is here with a team to scan as far and as thoroughly as they can to see if the wraiths are real or a fabrication. We’re presented with a triangle of conflict—two sides ideologically opposed with a third as the more or less neutral presence. Dubowski wants to disprove the existence of the wraiths while Sanders wants to keep the wraiths’ existence ambiguous. Does it hurt that Sanders profits immensely off of people coming to Wraithworld to see if they can spot any wraiths? Of course not, but that’s not the point. It’s worth mentioning too that while Dubowski is written less sympathetically, he’s by no measn evil; his worldview simply conflicts with Sanders’s, whom the journalist takes more of a liking to.

    Now, something that caught my eye reading the story this time around is the fact that not only is the journalist (who’s also the first-person narrator) nameless, but also genderless. There are only three principal characters in this thing and two of them are confirmed dudes, yet there’s nothing to indicate one way or another what gender the narrator is. This might be for the best. Personally I like to think the narrator is a woman, but I assume Martin wrote this voice with a man in mind. Otherwise there aren’t any female characters of any importance, which hey, it’s not like there’s any in-your-face sexism around here. I also like that the journalist, who’s a relatively passive character, is the narrator, since it focuses the action on the war of worldviews between Sanders and Dubowski.

    We get to find out some more about Wraithworld, a setting which Martin chooses not to describe in excessive detail. That the narrator is a journalist (as was Martin before he got into writing SFF) helps explain the perfunctory style; we aren’t burdened with learning about anything that we don’t have to. We know Wraithworld is a failed colony. We know there was something called the Gregor expedition, in which some explorers were driven to madness, claiming they had come into contact with tall apelike creatures that were immune to bullets. There were a few deaths, and there’ve been more since then, often assumed to be due to the wraiths. What began as an anomaly soon turned into myth.

    And the legend of the mist wraiths was born, and began to grow. Other ships came to Wraithworld, and a trickle of colonists came and went, and Paul Sanders landed one day and erected the Castle Cloud so the public might safely visit the mysterious planet of the wraiths.

    Not that Wraithworld has much else going for it. The mists cover everything below the tops of the highest mountains by nightfall, and the soil is not good for farming. As a colony, Wraithworld’s potential would be pretty low. On the plus side, the air seems to be breathable; we never get an in-depth explanation for the world’s climate, but the atmosphere’s mix and density must be Earthlike enough for people to walk around without space suits. All the better. Martin doesn’t bog the story down with details that might distract us from what is ultimately a fable or a mood piece, and what a tightly structured fable it is. That the ending is easily predictable is a non-issue, since in order for Martin’s thesis to work, the story must end in a certain way.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    After accompanying Dubowski and his men through the forests and mountains in search of the wraiths, the journalist gets the creeping feeling that Dubowski is right, that the wraiths were a product of hysteria—a hunch that turns out to be correct. Shortly before Dubowski is about to give a press conference about his findings, he lets Sanders and the journalist in on the conclusion of his research: the wraiths aren’t real. They didn’t find any, no matter how much manpower and tech they used. Sanders is not a happy man as he tries, with hope fading, to convince Dubowski that there might be wraiths in the mists after all.

    Sanders raised his eyes from his drink. They were bitter eyes. “Gregor,” he said stubbornly. “Gregor and the other classics.”

    Dubowski’s smile became a smirk. “Ah, yes. We searched that area quite thoroughly. My theory was right. We found a tribe of apes nearby. Big brutes. Like giant baboons, with dirty white fur. Not a very successful species, either. We found only one small tribe, and they were dying out. But clearly, that was what Gregor’s man sighted. And exaggerated all out of proportion.”

    The discovery ruins Sanders’s business, of course. People no longer come to Wraithworld looking for wraiths. It does, on the other hand, take off as a colony, albeit a minor one. More people come to the planet, but all three main characters go their separate ways, with the journalist leaving to cover other events, Dubowski continuing his studies elsewhere, and Sanders leaving Castle Cloud to be condemned; we never find out what becomes of him, ultimately. It’s a somber ending, but it’s not the end of the world by any means, as the journalist comes to find. Normally I don’t like to quote the endings of stories, but I have to do it with this one—I think it’s too lovely. The yearning in these final words is palpable.

    “Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl.

    Only the wraiths are missing.

    Only the wraiths.

    Gets my emotions going, even more so the second time around. Martin knows what the perfect note to end on is and he goes with it. Like everything else it feels like the act of an artist who is totally in control of his faculties, and I just adore it.

    A Step Farther Out

    This is a very different kind of writing from Martin than what most people are used to. It’s poetic, but not over-encumbered with purple language. It’s retrained, coming in at about fifteen pages, exhibiting a very young writer (Martin would’ve only been 22 when he wrote it) who’s also trying his utmost to be disciplined with his craft. Apparently Martin wrote “With Morning Comes Mistfall” shortly before another great early outing of his, “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” though the latter would be published first. I would not have guessed, since while “The Second Kind of Loneliness” certainly does hone in on the mood it wants, the slightly older story here feels more like the work of a mature writer. On top of that, Martin comes through with a discernable statement here, about the nature of beauty and about a certain quality that something beautiful should ideally have—that is to say, an air of mystery about it.

    Despite Paul Sanders being a bsuiness type, Martin clearly sympathizes with him because, in the context of the story, Sanders is also an artist, with Wraithworld as his piece or perhaps his muse. That Sanders never comes to understand totally how this planet works, and that we the readers are denied a lot of details (What does a rockcat look like, anyway?), reinforces this notion that in order for something to bewitch us with what seems to be an unspeakable beauty, we can only know so much about it. Indeed, there are things about a thing of beauty that we shouldn’t know; too much knowledge would take away the mystery of it, and after all, the most mysterious things are also the most alluring.

    I think “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is Martin’s early masterpiece; it’s certainly the best of his ’70s output that I’ve read so far, or at least it’s my favorite of the bunch. It lost the Hugo that year to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Nebula to James Tiptree Jr.’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” Now that’s some pretty intimidating competition right there! “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a stone-cold classic, one that’s still being much read and talked about today (God forbid if you’re forced to have a classroom discussion about it), and undeniably it’s more layered than Martin’s story. Still, if we’re talking about pure enjoyability in the act of reading a story, about reading something perfectly simple and yet poignant, about catching a young writer at the very moment when he becomes a serious artist, then I would have voted for Martin.

    See you next time.