Ladies and gentlemen? I love monster movies. I know, it’s not very classy or literate to say so, but I love movies about monsters—big and small. I love Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, the blob, the werewolf, the creature from the black lagoon, the shape-shifting alien of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and of course the many creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen. Among those movie monsters are the dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles which roamed the earth long before man came along—real-life monsters that were ultimately animals, trying to live their lives like the elephants and giraffes of today. Jurassic Park was probably the first monster movie I ever saw, and as such it was my first dose of what would turn out to be a lifelong addiction. Jurassic Park hit theaters in June 1993, and even now its effects, mostly practical contrary to its place as an innovator in CGI, are mostly seamless and dazzling.
Since now is the time of the film’s 30th anniversary, I figured it’s time to put a couple prehistoric-themed stories on the roster, a short story and novella which predate Jurassic Park but which hopefully will evoke a similar sense of wonder and amazement for Earth’s distant past. Aside from that we’ll be continuing a serial we had started last month, and we have a reliable workhorse in Henry Kuttner returning to the site once again. There is not a whole lot else to say, frankly—except for one thing.
As a young and earnest fan I was stoked to appear as a guest on my first SFF podcast, which actually was uploaded earlier today. I wanna thank Seth over at Hugos There Podcast for giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself to discuss a certain obscure and scoffed-at book that I would be unable to review for my own site. I believe I also mentioned a second podcast I’d be guesting on, which sadly was a bust, but depending on when it’ll be rescheduled (I’m really hoping it will be that and not simply trashed for good) it may be uploaded by the end of June.
Now it’s time for the stories!
For the serials:
Sos the Rope by Piers Anthony. Serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July to September 1968. I’m still stunned that we’re covering Piers Anthony—because of his reputation, but also because he was not much of a magazine contributor. Strange as it may sound, however, Anthony wrote much of his early fiction for the ‘zines, with his second novel, Sos the Rope, being written for a contest and first seeing print in F&SF. Anthony was already a Hugo nominee by then, though everyone I know loathes Chthon, the nominee in question.
The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner. Serialized in Amazing Stories, October to December 1973. Brunner was one of the most prolific SF writers of the era, in no small part because he wrote full-time and he had bills to pay. While he wrote a handful of classic novels, most famously Stand on Zanzibar, he seemingly wrote three times as many novels that were much shorter and less demanding than his major ones, The Stone That Never Came Down being one of those minor novels. I picked it because I liked the title.
For the novellas:
“Time Safari” by David Drake. From the August 1981 issue of Destinies. I’ve said this before, but for the purposes of my site I’m counting Destinies and its ilk as magazines; don’t @ me about this. All I really know about Drake is that he’s a Baen regular as author and editor, being one of many military SF authors to write for Jim Baen and later become a mainstay at Baen Books. “Time Safari” itself ia apparently part of a series, but given that these were published out of order I think it’s safe to assume this is functionally a standalone work.
“The Oceans Are Wide” by Frank M. Robinson. From the April 1954 issue of Science Stories. I know little about Robinson, but what I do know has my attention firmly held. Like a lot of SF authors of his generation Robinson got started around 1950, during the height of the SFF magazine boom, and wrote a good deal of his SF in the ’50s. More importantly, Robinson was one of the first unequivocally queer SF writers, even being associated with Harvey Milk and later being inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.
For the short stories:
“Exit the Professor” by Henry Kuttner. From the October 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. ISFDB lists this as a collaboration with C. L. Moore, but with all due respect I doubt that very much. Kuttner has the rare misfortune of being overshadowed by his equally (many would say more) talented wife, apparently to the point where Kuttner made jokes about Moore secretly writing stories attributed to him. True, he’s not as refined as Moore, but Kuttner’s humor and pessimism make him prescient, never mind that he was seriously prolific.
“The Wings of a Bat” by Pauline Ashwell. From the May 1966 issue of Analog Science Fiction. Ashwell is an author I’ve discovered recently in large part thanks to the anthology Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963) and its related fanzine Galactic Journey. Sadly Ashwell did not write a lot; “The Wings of a Bat” was her first story in six years and would be her last for 16. Equally peculiar is that she wrote exclusively for Astounding/Analog, being loyal to John W. Campbell and later Stanley Schmidt. This one has pterosaurs I think…
Enjoy the serials while you can, because in July we’ll be going without them again. I have a certain idea in mind that may or may not pan out. Hopefully June will not see any dents in my schedule like last month.
Planet Stories is a pretty interesting magazine whose contents I ought to give the deep-dive treatment one of these days, since a) it was one of the few SFF magazines in the ’40s to have a distinct personality of its own, and b) it encapsulates pulp science fiction at its most charming. It is a charming publication, with garish action-packed covers (perfecting the brass bra, I wanna add), probably the liveliest letters column in the field at the time, and, despite its juvenile exterior, being home to some excellent writers. Poul Anderson started his Dominic Flandry series here. Ray Bradbury contributed a few entries in what would later form The Martian Chronicles. Philip K. Dick’s first published story appeared here. But the author to define the magazine’s image was undoubtedly Leigh Brackett, whose planetary romances often made the cover, though she was generally keen on publishing in the adventure-leaning magazines like Startling Stories.
Brackett made her first couple sales to Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction, but she quickly looked elsewhere for her fiction, even if these magazines paid less. Nowadays Brackett is most known for the pretty good but uncharacteristic novel The Long Tomorrow, as well as her fairly successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter—for collaborating with Howard Hawks and, at the end of her life, writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Because Brackett got final screenwriting credit, she won a Hugo when the film won for Best Dramatic Presentation; she had been dead for three years when this happened. But for much of her time in our field, she acted as the heir apparent to Edgar Rice Burroughs, albeit being easily more downbeat and sophisticated than Burroughs. The star of today’s story, Eric John Stark, an Earthman raised on Mercury, owes a good deal to John Carter and Tarzan, with a strong hint of Conan the Barbarian.
First published in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, which is on the Archive. More importantly, because “Enchantress of Venus” fell out of copyright and someone took note of this, it’s free and perfectly legal, being available on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats, link here. For print we have more options still, this being one of Brackett’s more reprinted works of short fiction. The most relevant to me would have to be The Best of Leigh Brackett, part of the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series—edited and with an introduction by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. Brackett did the same for Hamilton’s Best Of collection. Aww.
A bit of exposition before we get to the story proper, since the mechanics of Venus as depicted in the story are a little odd, especially for modern readers. In contrast with the red desert world of Mars, as in the preceding and proceeding Stark stories, the Venus in “Enchantress of Venus” is about as swampy as you can imagine—with gas so thick that it can actually buoy ships. Specifically the area where the action is set, so called the Red Sea, is what we might now call a dead sea in that it’s not filled with water; it is, however, filled to the brim with red gases. “It was not water. It was gaseous, dense enough to float the buoyant hulls of the metal ships, and it burned perpetually with its deep inner fires.” It is indeed possible to breathe at the bottom of the Red Sea, which will be important to keep in mind for later. I say all this now because I was quite confused at first myself.
Stark has come to Venus in search of a friend, but it doesn’t take long for him to acquire yet one more problem in the form of the captain of the ship he’s taken to Shuruun, the pirate-infested port town. The captain, Malthor, is perhaps one of these pirates in disguise, hoping to knock Stark unconscious or worse—a hint Stark picks up in time to fight back, scarring Malthor, before jumping ship. In Shuruun he again narrowly escapes getting his shit kicked in, partly because he’s musclebound enough to be played by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and partly because, under strenuous circumstances, his upbringing by native Mercurians kicks in and he’s able to go beast mode. Something we find out quickly enough in this series is that Stark rather strongly takes after Tarzan, being half-man and half-beast, born to Earth people but raised in a savage culture. Stark is a barbarian in the sense that he is halfway between a civilized man and an animal.
While in Shuruun, Stark meets up with Larrabee, a fellow Earthman in exile, one who has been gone so long that people of Earth have since thought him dead. “He had never met Larrabee, but he remembered the pictures of him that had flashed across space on police bands.” The two get along as fellow expats, but Larrabee is about to leave the narrative for a long so it’ll be easy to forget about him. More of immediate importance is that we also run into Malthor’s daughter, Zareth, who going by descriptions of her also has to be of high school age. (I’m somewhat baffled by Brackett’s decision to have the third-person narrator linger on Zareth’s barely pubescent physique. I would expect such a decision from Marion Zimmer Bradley, but not Brackett.) Zareth admits upfront to being an agent of Malthor, who will beat her if she doesn’t do her job of luring Stark into a trap, but even so she refuses to go through with it, instead urging Stark to get out of Shuruun.
There are two female characters of importance here (I guess there’s a third, but she doesn’t do much), with Zareth as the first. Something I’ve noticed about Brackett’s writing is that it would be easy, if we were to apply whiteout to author bylines, to assume that the Stark stories were written by a pretty masculine if also gloomy man, given the role women play here. Not to say Brackett indulges in some internal misogyny, but it’s more how the women exist in relation to the male lead. Zareth is an innocent, almost angelic figure whose beauty (problematically described though it is) is to be taken in an ultimately platonic context; we can infer that while Stark respects Zareth, he is not enough of a pedophile too virtuous, despite his savagery, to see her as anything more than a good friend.
We’re told, however, of a series of islands in the Red Sea, about the “Lost Ones,” people who are spirited away and never to be seen again—about a castle where a band of slave-drivers called the Lhari lives. So naturally Stark goes there! What could possibly go wrong? It’s here that we’re finally introduced to our villains, the Lhari: a family of incestuous thieves and warlords who have taken people as slaves for the purpose of finding something at the bottom of the Red Sea. There are several members, but the big players are Varra, the titular enchantress (also a falconer); Egil, a mad warrior and Varra’s cousin, who also happens to be madly in lust with said cousin (wooo); Treon, a disabled man who is treated by his family as a moron but who is clearly not that, on top of being clairvoyant (ya know, the token good member of the family); and Arel, the matriarch of the family, a demented old woman who is basically a witch.
(Some femme fatales would put on an outward appearance of benevolence, but Varra is surprisingly upfront about being a bad bitch who only wants Stark for his muscles; he is apparently quite… breedable. I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to put that. In fairness to Varra, her choices are some other slave or to give Egil a pity fuck, which she’s not inclined to do. Needless to say Stark is not looking forward to being Varra’s sex slave. If I recall correctly the titular villainess of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” also treats Stark as a sperm bank with arms and legs, which makes me wonder if there’s some femme-dom fetish-pandering at work here.)
In better news, in being held captive by the Lhari, Stark does finally meet Helvi, the friend he came to Venus looking for in the first place. Helvi has survived as a slave so far, but his brother, who “had broken tabu and looked for refuge in Shuruun,” was not so lucky. “A man cannot live too long under the sea,” Helvi says. They have to get out of here, but ideally before that they ought to figure out what the Lhari are excavating the bottom of the sea for and put a stop to them while they’re at it. You may notice we’re knee-deep in the novella and there’s been shockingly little action up to this point; we’ll get to that, but this is a story heavy on both atmosphere and dialogue, and the Lhari are quite chatty for being so inbred that their family tree looks more akin to a stump. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
There Be Spoilers Here
Varra offers Stark to kill Egil and the other members of the family, barring Treon (whom Varra dumbly sees as no threat) and Arel (who’s pretty old and decrepit already), in exchange for Stark’s freedom and being able to raw-dog Varra every other night as co-ruler of Shuruun. This all sounds like a good deal, if not for the fact that Varra is clearly untrustworthy and is as likely to stick a knife in Stark’s back. Stark ultimately refuses, in a reasonable move which indicates he’s at least of average intelligence; some others of his ilk are more easily bamboozled. Unfortunately Stark has made multiple enemies at this point, with even Malthor rearing his head again so that Stark and him can have a rematch. Apparently Zareth, having been beaten (again) for not betraying Stark, has led Malthor to the bottom of the sea. No matter. Malthor goes down easily enough.
Egil, who had been eyeing Stark this whole time, nearly gets him with a crossbow, only for Zareth to do that ’90s action movie trope of jumping in front of the bolt to save Stark, sacrificing herself in the process. I was expecting some deus ex machina to kick in so that Zareth could be saved, but no, she dies the real death. In fairness, Egil’s death is worse, with Treon even looking on casually, “as though he had seen it all before and was not surprised.” Stark and Treon agree to have Zareth buried in her proper place, and the snowball of vengeance has now thoroughly been set in motion. The back end of “Enchantress of Venus” is a bit of bloodbath. A war between the slaves and slave-drivers breaks out with the slaves narrowly winning, “Nearly half the slaves were dead, and the rest wounded.” The Lhari are worse off. Treon kills Varra (a death so sudden that it’s actually easy to miss), but not before she mortally wounds him, while the rest die in battle. Treon, being the token good member of the family, is the only one to get a proper farewell from Stark; Our Hero™ seems just glad to be rid of Varra.
The Lhari have been wiped out, but more importantly the dark secret they’ve been trying to uncover (I won’t go into details, but I will say it reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) has been rendered such that nobody can make use of it anymore. It’s not hard to take an allegorical reading from all this, with the dark secret that ought not to be used by anyone standing in for (perhaps) the invention of the atomic bomb. There was a good deal of science fiction written about atomic power and the possibility of nuclear weapons in the year’s leading up to World War II, but following that war SF writers became deeply wary about the tangible reality of living in a world that could be torn asunder by said nuclear weapons—previously hypothetical but now known. “Enchantress of Venus,” like some of Brackett’s other later fiction, is filled with such wariness. Stark rescues Helvi and frees the slaves, but at a steep cost. Despite its action and generous doses of testosterone, this is not an adventure yarn that would make the reader feel like a jolly good badass vicariously.
A Step Farther Out
I was originally gonna tackle the first Eric John Stark story for this site, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” but I found that a) I was not yet accustomed enough to Brackett’s swashbuckling style to make total sense of it, and b) “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” was such a straightforward adventure narrative that I struggled to think of things to say about it. Not as much of an issue with “Enchantress of Venus,” in part because it’s so much slower than its predecessor, but it’s also a good deal bleaker. Given the episodic nature of the series it’s expected that Stark will end up pretty much where he started, but in this case it means a whole lot of death, including a few characters we’ve actually come to care about. When the action finally ramps up towards the end it comes almost as a relief, given the oppressive foggy atmosphere and wholly unlikable villains. Brackett’s science-fantasy outlook still reads as partly foreign to me (if you care about scientific plausibility then you will not survive), but look, I’m willing to forgive something if the tone is the right amount of melancholy.
I had encountered Charles L. Harness for the first time only a few months ago, but I had known about him before then. Despite making his genre debut in 1948 and being active off and on until his death in 2005, Harness was not a very prolific writer and his reputation is pretty near to cult status. While his style and inspirations are no doubt products of the Campbellian Golden Age of the ’40s, Harness quickly showed himself to be a bit quirkier than his fellows, even endearing himself to the New Wave crowd in the ’60s. No doubt Michael Moorcock’s outspoken admiration for Harness, even reprinting a couple of his stories in New Worlds, contributed to Harness’s career getting a second wind in the latter half of the ’60s. Thing is, Harness went on hiatus from the field multiple times, most prominently from 1954 to 1965, and today’s story might be a reason for that break.
The early ’50s saw the biggest boom the SFF magazine market would see for decades, and was by a good margin the busiest period for the field up to that point—yet even in this permissive climate, Harness was unable to sell what he must’ve thought was his magnum opus, “The Rose,” in the US. While “The Rose” is now highly regarded by those who’ve read it, even garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novella, it must’ve been too weird for anyone in American genre publishing at the time, so Harness resorted to submitting it to Authentic Science Fiction, a second-rate British magazine; it would not see American publication until 1969. “The Rose” was and remains one of the few true cult classics of science fiction to have come out of the 1950-1954 boom period, and I think its cult status is well-earned.
First published in the March it doesn’t say March on the cover but ISFDB gives it as March publication and I’m not going by issue numbers unless I have no alternative damnit 1953 issue of Authentic Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in (confusingly titled) The Rose, which was available in the UK for years but had to wait to get an American release. Your two big (literally) print options nowadays are The Science Fiction Century (ed. David G. Hartwell), which is a very useful tome on paper but in practice may kill your wrists. A bit more practical is An Ornament to His Profession, a near-complete collection of Harness’s short fiction from NESFA Press, and I do believe that one is still in print.
Harness immediately gains points for making the protagonist of “The Rose” not only a woman but a woman with a disability. We have Anna van Tuyl, a psychogeneticist (a psychiatrist and a geneticist?) and a ballet composer, who also happens to have a couple physical oddities about her: the first is on her forehead, “two tumorous bulges—like incipient horns,” the second is what appears to be a hunchback. I won’t say what it is exactly, but in hindsight I should’ve seen Anna’s abnormal physique as heightened foreshadowing. Given her occupation and her search for grace (as both person and artist), Anna, with her horns and back, could be seen as an angel fallen to Earth, like Lucifer after the Fall. Thankfully Anna is not in constant pain, but as to be expected she does have some self-image issues, with both the narration and the interior illustration at the story’s beginning (courtesy of Fischer) almost making her out to be a witch out of Macbeth.
Anna is both a scientist and an artist, being caught between science and art, a conflict that will guide the rest of the narrative. She’s composing a ballet titled The Nightingale and the Rose, which she’s almost done with but can’t bring herself to finish; in her defense she’s not only composing this ballet but intends to perform it, the only problem being that the Nightingale, a tragic figure, dies at the end to create a magical red rose. The Nightingale and the Student fall in love, but the Nightingale must sacrifice herself to turn a white rose red. I know what you’re thinking: “This is not very subtle.” And you’d be right, but then Harness makes no attempt to hide the parallel between Anna’s soon-to-be-dramatic life and the ballet she’s composing; indeed much of the joy of reading “The Rose” comes from connecting the dots for it as an allegory. Our intuition tells us that somehow Anna’s story won’t end happily for her, but how, why, and when are the questions that we remain eager to see answered. In other words, get your popcorn ready.
“The Rose” can be partly understood as a series of dialogues, and the first big one is between Anna and her friend/colleague Matt Bell, who like Anna is preoccupied with art but unlike her (by his own admission) has no knack for creating it. Anna’s latest assignment is officially an eccentric husband to one Martha Jacques, but unofficially it’s both of them: Ruy and Martha Jacques, two personalities who are diametrically opposed in every way imaginable except for the fact that they’re both egotists, each thinking s/he is the center of the universe. Martha is a scientist who, like Anna, is close to finishing a grand project of her own, going by the name of Sciomnia, a vaguely described invention that is supposed to be an amalgamation of all the known hard sciences. The official subject, Ruy, is an artist and a Bohemian type who has apparently lost the ability to read and write. Ruy and Martha hate each other’s guts, which makes one wonder how they got together in the first place—but then art and science must always be bumping shoulders as well, fighting perpetually and yet often seen in collaboration.
Ruy and Martha Jacques are a personification of what Matt deems an ideological battle for the future of humanity. “So the battle lines converge in Renaissance II. Art versus Science. Who dies? Who lives?” It’s clear that both Anna and Harness believe science is subservient to art—a viewpoint which probably turned off John W. Campbell from buying the story, despite it otherwise being a Campbellian narrative about human evolution. Actually the only other thing I can think of off the top of my head that preceded “The Rose” which can be compared to it is A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, also about a race of supermen destined to overtake “normal” humanity. I’m getting ahead of myself. “The Rose” is headier than anything by van Vogt that I’ve read, which is saying a lot, but it’s also far more openly detatched from the rules of everyday life and normal human behavior.
Consider that Martha is a mega-bitch and Ruy cares for nobody but himself for most of the story, and the fact that somehow these two have not literally killed each other up to this point. Consider also that despite her rationality and her best interests Anna is drawn profoundly to Ruy once they meet, though to be fair to her there are a couple things about Ruy that would make him of great interest to her—namely that he too has the matching bulges on his forehead and a hunchback. The three main players in the narrative (Anna, Ruy, and Martha) all play roles that correspond to their ballet counterparts: Anna is the Nightingale, Ruy is the Student, and Martha is… the thorn, perhaps. Martha is the most one-dimensional of the three and her obsession with vindicating her scientific breakthrough doesn’t snowball into mania so much as call mania its home from the start. Of more interest is Ruy fitting into the role of the Student, taking part in “the dream ballet” that Anna has thought and dreamt so much about but is unable to finish.
It could be that I’m a big fan of Princess Tutu, but I have a real soft spot for ballet as a diving board for allegorical—for characters in the supposed real world to take on the roles of fictional, even fantastical characters, whether they’re aware of it or not. Anna’s own inner conflict has to do with the fact that she sees herself in the role of the Nightingale—and in her ballet, the Nightingale dies at the end; yet it never occurs to her to change the ballet’s ending even if it means somehow altering her own fate. The Nightingale must die at the end. For love of the Student. To create the Red Rose. This is further complicated by Ruy being a rather unlikable fellow (although he’s not totally batshit like his wife), which bothers Anna immensely as well. While I’m pretty sure Harness agrees with Ruy’s side in the battle of ideas here to an extent, Ruy also has moments where his egotism reaches its apex and we get massive overbearing monologues like this one:
“[Science] is simply a parasitical, adjectival, and useless occupation devoted to the quantitative restatement of Art,” finished the smiling Jacques. “Science is functionally sterile; it creates nothing; it says nothing new. The scientist can never be more than a humble camp-follower of the artist. There exists no scientific truism that hasn’t been anticipated by creative art. The examples are endless. Uccello worked out mathematically the laws of perspective in the fifteenth century; but Kallicrates applied the same laws two thousand years before in designing the columns of the Parthenon. The Curies thought they invented the idea of ‘half-life’—of a thing vanishing in proportion to its residue. The Egyptians tuned their lyre-strings to dampen according to the same formula. Napier thought he invented logarithms—entirely overlooking the fact that the Roman brass workers flared their trumpets to follow a logarithmic Curve.”
For the record, I find these often entertaining, but they do also show that even the characters we’re supposed to root for are flawed. Anna sees Ruy as the Student when she meets him, but it takes time and some growing as a person (in his relationship with Anna) for Ruy to become the Student, as the one who is worthy of the Nightingale’s love. Anna makes it clear to everyone that she does not love Ruy, although Martha is not convinced; quite the contrary, despite hating her husband, Martha is at the same determined to see that nobody else can have him, with Anna apparently being the last person on the planet she wants as the one to cuck her. On the one hand this is mania to an extreme that threatens even the physical laws of reality, but it does make a sort of sense if Martha understands on some level that Anna and Ruy are set in playing out their roles.
At this point you might be wondering: “This all sounds a bit odd, but how exactly is it science fiction? Nothing science-fictional has happened yet!” And once again you’d be right. As it turns out, though, Anna and Ruy having the horns and the hunchback are not just there for the sake of being there: these are characteristics of a mutation which will give these characters a lot more than what they would’ve thought possible. We’re not quite there, though. Like I said, Ruy lost the ability to read and write; the written word now looks like total gibberish to him. Anna runs an X-ray on Ruy while the latter is unconscious (for reasons too convoluted to explain here) and she finds something very odd indeed about his head—and by extension hers as well. Guess what, it has to do with the pineal gland.
“Is the pineal absent—or, are the ‘horns’ actually the pineal, enormously enlarged and bifurcated? I’m convinced that the latter is the fact. For reasons presently unknown to me, this heretofore small, obscure lobe has grown, bifurcated, and forced its destructive dual limbs not only through the soft cerebral tissue concerned with the ability to read, but also has gone on to skirt half the cerebral circumference to the forehead, where even the hard frontal bone of the skull has softened under its pressure.” She looked at Bell closely. “I infer that it’s just a question of time before I, too, forget how to read and write.”
Ah yes, the pineal gland, that old chestnut of science fiction; not as popularly used now in SF as it used to be, say, a century ago, but Harness knows what he’s doing when he brings up “the third eye” and how it had been alluded to in religious writings and art. Yep, art anticipating science yet again. That’s not the whole of it, though: the mass of tissue on Ruy’s back is not just a mass of tissue, but housing something much more important—almost like a second brain. (I told you this would get weird.) The horns and hunchback seem to have a connection, and not only that, but they allow for a kind of telepathy, hence how Ruy is able to do certain things without being able to read or write. Again this feels like it could fit into the Campbell mould, but it’s too heightened and anti-science (and really, too literate) to appeal to Campbell. What we have with “The Rose” is a hybrid of pulp SF conventions and a playing with themes that’s more ambitious than most SF being published at the time. I can see why editors were wary of it.
I have to wonder if Harness’s struggle to get “The Rose” published made him wary as well, because as far as I can tell nothing he wrote post-hiatus went as “out there” as this novella, although that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in his post-hiatus work. Harness was a lawyer by day, but he was also an artist; his penchant for name-dropping and references falls in line with what certain New Wave authors would be doing a decade after “The Rose.” It’s appropriate that William Blake gets name-dropped at one point since while he is often considered one of the Romantic (with a capital R) poets, he’s a little too much of a weirdo to fit comfortably alongside John Keats and Lord Byron—never mind that he was a generation older than the other Romantics; incidentally (for we know he could not have intended this) Harness was also a generation older than the New Wave authors he fell in with. “The Rose” lacks the slickness in style that would often define the New Wave, but thematically it very much feels like a precursor—a story about the coming of a new race, itself a distant prototype for a new literary movement.
One last thing…
This is yet another example of why I love the novella mode—for literature generally but especially for science fiction. At (so I’d guess) a good 30,000 words “The Rose” would not make any sense if you cut the word count in half, but the stage it sets is also too small to justify a full novel. We’re given a handful of characters, a few ideas that can only be done in science fiction, a plot that never veers off its main course or gets distracted with sub-plots, and that’s really all we need to enjoy the story and for Harness to make his points. Its length may have contributed to editors not wanting it, but I think the length is more or less justified. Harness is not a poet on a line-by-line level, but his use of symbols and allusions is very much deliberate.
There Be Spoilers Here
You know I think this is special when I use this section to just tell you to read the damn story yourself. I’m not getting into the ending, only saying here that it’s simultaneously baffling and perfectly logical in the context of a narrative that operates on its own rules and nothing else.
A Step Farther Out
It’s not perfect, but “The Rose” is certainly memorable, and it’s amazing to me that Harness had it published unaltered but in far-from-ideal circumstances rather than change it to make it more acceptable to editors in the American market. Harness’s inability to get “The Rose” published in the US must’ve pained him, but ultimately he stayed true to himself and that artistic integrity paid off in the long run. By the time Harness returned to genre writing in 1966 he was no longer the maverick that he was in the early ’50s, but that’s partly because the field had caught up to him; he had been vindicated. It’s maybe too pulpy and overtly allegorical for more “sophisticated” readers and at the same time too sophisticated for diehard pulp readers of the era, but “The Rose” is what most good stories aren’t, which is to say it’s unique and there’s nothing else quite like it.
This will turn out to be a busy month for me. I’m gonna be a guest on one or two podcasts/streams with some people I very much respect, and I’ll also be flying out of my Jersey/Pennsylvania bubble to visit some friends I rarely ever get to hang out with in person. On the one hand this is all more eventful than what I usually deal with, but also I’ll have a bit less time to manage this site—which won’t stop me from putting in as much effort as I usually do. It’s draining sometimes, but that is how passion works.
My personal life is gonna be busy, but also my review lineup is FILLED for May: we’ve got two serials, two novellas, two short stories, and finally a complete novel—our first one in six months. I know, the gap between novel reviews looks to be wide, but mind you that there aren’t too many of these “complete” novels in the magazines.
One more thing: I mentioned in a past editorial that I think very highly of 1953 as a year when SFF flourished, in general and especially in magazine publishing, which was experiencing a bubble we would not see again until… now, basically. Strangely, I haven’t before covered ANYTHING from that year, so to compensate we’ve got two stories from 1953 in the lineup. 1953 was such a banger that I could probably get five years out of just reviewing everything that was published then.
Enough wasting time, though, let’s see what we have.
For the serials:
All Judgment Fled by James White. Serialized in Worlds of If, December 1967 to February 1968. White is an author I’ve not read a single word of (or at least I think) up to this point, and given his philosophy with storytelling this feels a little criminal to me. When planning this post I flip-flopped between All Judgment Fled, Second Ending, and The Dream Millennium for my first White, since all three sound appealing, and ultimately went with this because I’ve also been meaning to tackle something—anything—that was published in If.
Sos the Rope by Piers Anthony. Serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July to September 1968. Yes, that Piers Anthony. He actually appeared regularly in the genre magazines early in his career, when he was a promising young writer and people did not yet know the horrors he was about to unleash on the world. My only prior Anthony experience was the short story “In the Barn,” and let me tell you… that’s the kind of thing that puts you off an author for years. But maybe Sos the Rope, his second novel, will be good!
For the novellas:
“The Rose” by Charles L. Harness. From the March 1953 issue of Authentic Science Fiction. Retro Hugo nominee for Best Novella. Harness is one of those recent discoveries of mine that I’ve been meaning to explore further—made easier because Harness was not that prolific a writer; when he wrote he was fairly productive, but then he would vanish for several years. Harness apparently struggled to find a publisher for “The Rose” in the US, having to jump across the Atlantic and submit it to a filthy British magazine.
“Enchantress of Venus” by Leigh Brackett. From the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories. Brackett is now most known for her part in the messy scripting process for The Empire Strikes Back, for her collaborations with director Howard Hawks, and for the rather unchararcteristic novel The Long Tomorrow. Much of Brackett’s fiction, however, is planetary romance a la Edgar Rice Burroughs, complete with swashbuckling antics. “Enchantress of Venus” is one of several stories starring Eric John Stark, the barbarian hero for the space age.
For the short stories:
“Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick. From the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction. Retro Hugo nominee for Best Novelette. Not that I try to hide my biases anyway, but Philip K. Dick is one of my top five favorite authors—and he ain’t #5 on that list. But before he broke new ground as a novelist, Dick was one of the most talented and prolific SFF writers of the ’50s, with about thirty of his short stories being published in 1953 alone. “Second Variety” is one of Dick’s most famous short stories, and yet somehow I’ve not read it before.
“Black God’s Shadow” by C. L. Moore. From the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It’s been two months since I reviewed Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss,” which was a reread, and true enough there was a two-month gap in publication between “The Black God’s Kiss” and its direct sequel. Only a year into her career and Moore had skyrocketed to being one of Weird Tales‘s most popular authors, with the adventures of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry getting started during this period. Moore is a favorite of mine, naturally.
For the complete novel:
Big Planet by Jack Vance. From the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories. Believe it or not, this is a reread—actually one of the first stories I remember reading via magazine scan. As is often the case with me, though, there are surely many things about this novel that I didn’t pick up on a first reading. Vance is not an author I’m strongly attached to, but he does fill a certain niche, being a planet builder par excellence and a crafter of gnarly planetary adventures when he feels like it. Big Planet represents planetary romance shifting away from the Burroughs-Brackett model (which is really science-fantasy), and injecting the subgenre with some semblance of scientific plausibility. But how does this novel hold up on a reread? Let’s find out.
We have a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy, all of it vintage. We’ll get back to some more recent publications next month… maybe. You have to understand that I only cover so much in a given month and that there’s so much history behind the genre magazines. The roster, you may notice, leans toward adventure this month, between the Brackett, Moore, Vance, and probably the Anthony pieces; it just sort of turned out that way. Maybe given that I’ll be traveling soon I thought it appropriate to focus more on tales of high adventure for my site. Regardless, it won’t be a boring lot.
People generally fall into three camps when it comes to Gene Wolfe: they haven’t heard of him, they respect him but they find it hard to get into his work, or they really go to bat for whom they believe to be one of the best writers ever. I fall into that second camp. Wolfe was no doubt brilliant, being more literary and sophisticated than most of his New Wave contemporaries. He sold his first story in 1951 but did not start writing again with any regularity until 1966, from then on becoming more or less affiliated with the original anthologies like Orbit and Universe that were cropping up at that time. Nowadays Wolfe is most known for The Book of the New Sun, a series of four (or five, depending on how we count Urth of the New Sun) novels that are meant to be taken as one whole. Even though I struggle to get through The Book of the New Sun personally, it’s hard to deny its mixing of far-future science fiction and low fantasy has a unique appeal.
Today’s story, “Memorare,” is not a case of Wolfe playing with genre boundaries, though, being spacefaring sciennce fiction from start to finish. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has, over the decades, done several special author issues, typically involving a cover depicting the author, a tribue essay, and a short story or novella by said author which was specially commissioned for the issue. “Memorare” is a standalone novella that was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and for newcomers to Wolfe it may serve as a good introduction to his strengths—if also one or two of his weaknesses.
First published in the April 2007 issue of F&SF, which is on the Archive. As far as reprints go, you have two options. “Memorare” got a chapbook release in 2008 from Wyrm Publishing, looking quite fetching due to the cover, which looks like a poster for a ’50s B-movie. That same year we got our second and final reprint, as part of Year’s Best SF 13 (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), marking its only anthology appearance. In other words, this thing has not been brought into print since 2008, which is a bit odd considering it was clearly an acclaimed work. Could we get a collection that focuses on Wolfe’s more recent short fiction maybe?
Gordon Van Gelder’s opening blurb for this story references Survivor (boy, what a dated reference that is), which is relevant because what follows is basically a survival adventure narrative. March Wildspring is a documentary filmmaker who at the moment is a bit down on his luck, trying to cobble together footage for a show on the asteroid memorials that are sprinkled around Jupiter and Saturn. He travels around in his ship, in a world where for some reason spaceships are called “hoppers,” with a “digicorder” which is basically a camera; I don’t know why Wolfe has a tendency to not call things as they simply are. This all sounds simple enough, even boring enough, since at first you might think that taking footage of mausoleums in space would be straightforward—but this is a Gene Wolfe story.
In the future, certains persons of the filthy rich and famous (and perhaps insane) variety have opted to enshrine themselves in space, specifically in the asteroid belt where they could say, “I wanna build a tomb inside that,” and they might actually get their wish. The logistics to build one of these things must be a fucking nightmare, but Wolfe and the characters don’t dwell on that part so much aside from noting that, at least as far as the materials needed, it could be done. But should it…? To make things worse, these memorials sometimes have traps set in place for those who wanna do some graverobbing, which on the one hand makes sense if you’re someone who has some really valuable loot placed in your tomb, but also, this all sounds a little bit insane. I don’t know what it says about March that he’s also crazy enough to be doing this shit (the tomb-raiding) regularly enough that he wants to make a whole documentary about his experiences.
Something that didn’t occur to me until just now is that world of “Memorare” is not that dissimilar from John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, in that the solar system has been more or less colonized entirely and people, more often than not, hop across moons and planets for the sake of tourism—of fighting off boredom. There are some differences. For one Earth has not been taken over by aliens in “Memorare” (indeed aliens are absent here, so cross that off the list), and also the solar system is a bit more dangerous in Wolfe’s story. In the Eight Worlds stories people are rarely in danger to the extent that their lives could end permanently; it’s actually quite hard to die for real in the Eight Worlds series, so conflicts not involving permadeath are preferred. But in “Memorare” people die permanently, and often violently. “Every year, five, or ten, or twenty don’t make it back,” says March when referring to fellow travelers among the planets.
Right, one more thing. Certain tomb owners can cheat death (but not really) by reproducing their likenesses with a hologram or even an android; this is not the same as cloning and memory backups in the Eight Worlds, but it’s the closest people can get to life after death. The uncanny result of all this is that March can (and indeed does) interview what are effectively the ghosts of the owners of these tombs, as hologram projections or droids.
The first half of “Memorare” is pretty episodic, with March hopping around before meeting up with his business partner and love interest, Kit, whom he desperately wants to marry but can’t—at least partly, according to Kit, because of their careers. I don’t wanna dwell on Kit too much because I’m not really a fan of her character—or the other leading lady of the story, for that matter. I’ll explain why in a minute, but let’s say Wolfe is setting up a love square that detracts from the narrative more than it adds. Few authors, even the good ones, do romance well, and Wolfe has yet to convince me he’s one of those few who can make it work. We’re soon introduced to Robin, Kit’s friend and, as it turns out, March’s ex. We had heard before that March is a divorcee, but apparently he’d been divorced twice, one of those times with Robin. Indeed Robin used to go by the name of Sue, but she had it legally changed.
March and Robin’s relationship was not a happy one.
Robin whispered, “He’s my ex. Kit.”
“Jim?” Kit goggled at her. “I saw Jim. It was Wednesday night.”
“Not Jim. Oh, God! I hate this!”
March said, “It’s been years since the final decree, Kit, and the proceedings dragged on for a couple of years before that. I had abused her—verbally. I had said things that injured her delicate feelings. Things that were quoted in court, mostly inaccurately and always out of context. I had persecuted her—”
“Don’t! Just don’t! Don’t say those things.”
“Why not?” March was grim. “You said them to a judge.”
“I had to!”
Jim, by the way, is Robin’s current partner, a gaping asshole who for some reason talks like a 1930s gangster; we’ll get to him in a minute. The thing about Wolfe that tends to keep me at arm’s length with him is that he is basically never direct with the reader, opting instead to hide behind characters who are rarely honest with anything, even themselves, plus his thing for shrouding plot details in ambiguity. As far as the plot goes “Memorare” is actually straightforward for Wolfe, there’s surprisingly little in the way of narrative trickery, but that part about unreliable characters is still there—for what purpose I cannot say. The relationship between March and Robin is arguably the dramatic focal point of the story, yet it’s also the murkiest: for one we’re never sure how trustworthy either’s side of the story is, but Robin’s frazzled demeanor implies that her side of things is to be taken with a grain of salt. I have issues with this situation.
Another problem I have with Wolfe, which I really do think is a shortcoming of his and not just a matter of personal taste, is his blind spot for writing female characters who are both sympathetic and three-dimensional; or rather he has a hard time doing either when it comes to women. I know, it’s not a unique criticism, especially for a man of Wolfe’s age, but what separates Wolfe from, say, Harlan Ellison, is that it’s not hard to figure out why Ellison has a misogynistic streak: he’s an angry short guy who went through one messy divorce too many. With Wolfe, however, the man’s writing is so controlled and so meticulous that I have to assume his light but conspicuous misogyny is there for a reason—only I can’t fathom what that reason is. Of the four main characters March is the only one who is allowed to never sound like a cartoon, but he’s also the only one who’s never framed as all that untrustworthy. Protagonist bias? Then again he’s very much not a perfect person; he makes mistakes and it’s his own personal hell, namely his relationship problems and more implicitly his crisis of faith (of course he’s Catholic, if only lapsed), that drives the plot.
Wolfe is known for several things, among them his devout if also pessimistic Catholicism which crops up in his fiction, often only subliminally. Secular readers have less of an issue with Wolfe than, say, Flannery O’Connor, because unlike O’Connor Wolfe is never trying to convert the reader. For the record I do like O’Connor, despite not being Catholic or even Christian, because she’s so damn good at what she does (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a Catholic horror story, and one of the greatest horror stories ever written), but Wolfe’s worldview is despondent enough that he’s much more on the side of Graham Greene than O’Connor; or to put it more in the context of genre fiction, think of Walter M. Miller, Jr., although Miller was despondent enough to despair in the end. “Memorare” is certainly dark, though, with its constant imagery and talk of death, never mind the muddy relationships between the four main characters, with love and life itself on the line. About half the “characters” we read about are people who are already dead, their specters merely lingering in the dark rocky vaults of space.
There Be Spoilers Here
The latter half of “Memorare” is concerned with what is supposed to be one of the most dangerous tombs in the solar system: Number Nineteen. This is a strange, even surrealistic place, host to a crowd of people and founded by someone whose name is somehow unknown, though he must have been unspeakably wealthy to have such an elaborate tomb constructed. Number Nineteen is basically a world unto itself, despite being only an asteroid; this naturally means that footage of the interior would go for a lot of money—if March and company can make it out in one piece. By this point Jim has caught up with the rest of the party and joined in the festivities. I really hate Jim. That’s okay, because Jim is the only character we’re unequivocally supposed to dislike. Everything that comes out of this dude’s mouth is bullshit, be it what he’s saying or how he’s saying it—never mind that, regardless of Robin’s testimony, it’s clear that Jim is an abuser and almost proud of it; his offscreen death at the end is a little satisfying.
What’s far less satisfying, even horrifying, is Kit’s abrupt and violent death just as she and March are about to escape. It’s one of the most effective and disturbing little pieces of writing I’ve seen in a while, regardless of how I had felt about Kit’s character up to that point, made only more shocking because March does not react to it immediately. Robin chooses to stay behind so that March can escape, and sacrifice affects him deeply. The only good thing here is that the footage March got is, at least according to his boss, incredible, with his company buying it pretty much on the spot. Sure, his personal life may be ruined, but at least he’ll be all set financially. That’s gotta mean something, right? Obviously there’s some cynicism on Wolfe’s part about the exploitative nature of reality TV, which after all is documentary filmmaking taken to a more sensationalist level—ya know, like those shitty and problematic “true crime” documentaries that get popular on Netflix.
But then we get to the very end.
We get a list of credits for the documentary March wanted to make, with dedications to Kit and Jim. We also find out with these credits, however, that not only did March go back to Number Nineteen and rescue Robin (okay) but that they also… remarried in the time between the rescue and the documentary’s release? They’re both listed as editors with Robin taking March’s last name (again). Now, documentaries are mostly made in post-production; it could take a year or a damn near a decade to cobble together a documentary in the editing room. Regardless, there’s a whole story here with March and Robin getting back together that’s hinted at but which goes untold. The real issue I have is that everything we’ve seen up to this point indicated that no matter how much they might forgive each other and reconcile, getting back together would be a bad idea for both parties. Like obviously these two are a toxic couple—whether that toxicity is mutual or one-sided doesn’t matter ultimately. I suppose this is meant to give of us a ray of hope at the end, but as far as bittersweet endings go I find the sweet half far less convincing than the bitter.
A Step Farther Out
I’m a bit mixed on this one. The good news is that I went in worried that “Memorare” would be Wolfe in typical cryptic mode, and it actually ended up being more accessible than I expected. Despite being a pretty late work of his, “Memorare” is something you can recommend to someone who has not read Wolfe before and they probably won’t bounce off of it. Wolfe’s Catholicism is a bit more overt here than in much of his fiction (that I’ve read, anyway), but like any good storyteller he uses his worldview to enrich his work thematically and emotionally, which is very much the case here. The downside is that Wolfe’s blind spot when it comes to writing women rears its head with a vengeance in “Memorare,” the misogyny being turned up a notch or two for reasons I can’t fathom. I’m also not sure what Wolfe’s deal is with the anachronistic dialogue; given the chapbook’s cover there’s this running theme of “retro” science fiction, a sort of throwback, but I don’t understand what the purpose of that connection is. Despite my gripes, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wanna see this, and some of Wolfe’s more recent short fiction, preserved in a new retrospective collection.
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the decorated and universally beloved authors in all of genre fiction, and indeed is one of the few authors I know whose impact can be felt in both science fiction and fantasy almost equally. She started late, already in her thirties when she sold her first SFF story, but by the time she turned forty she had become one of the major voices in the field, and the ’70s only cemented her dominance. With novels like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed all published only a few years apart it’s not hard to see how Le Guin earned her stripes. It was also during this period that she established the two series that would occupy much of her output for the rest of her life: the Earthsea series and the Hainish series. For my money it’s the latter series that makes Le Guin one of the greats for me, with every Hainish story I’ve read being at the very least interesting, and often being very much food for thought. Unfortunately, Le Guin would abandon Hain and the many worlds of that series for about a decade and a half to persue other avenues.
But then she came back! The ’90s saw a major resurgance for the Hainish series, with Le Guin also starting to contribute regularly to genre magazines while she was at it. Today’s story, “Forgiveness Day,” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction but later was collected in the book Four Ways to Forgiveness—not a novel but a collection of stories linked by setting and themes. Among the many worlds of the Hainish series the stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness all have to do with the sister planets Werel and Yeowe, and a massive slave rebellion on one that impacts the other. The second, third, and fourth of these stories were first published in Asimov’s, with “Forgiveness Day” being the first.
First published in the November 1994 of Asimov’s, which is on the Archive. Like I said it’s part of Four Ways to Forgiveness, or Five Ways to Forgiveness if you’re reading the Library of America edition, as that includes the later story “Old Music and the Slave Women.” The collection is not hard to find, regardless of the version, but “Forgiveness Day” has also been anthologized elsewhere, namely The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twelfth Annual Collection and The Best of the Best Volume 2, both edited by Gardner Dozois; the latter collects some of the best novellas to have been included in Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction series up to that point. There’s also The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, which includes most of the stories in Five Ways to Forgiveness plus several novellas and novelettes from throughout her career.
Within the first page we’re told a good deal about our first protagonist (I say that because there’s a second one we’ll get to in a bit), Solly, who is young but has been “around,” as it were. With hundreds of lightyears under her belt and having been on a dozen planets, Solly is perfectly qualified to act as Envoy despite her age. Her latest assignment as an agent of the Ekumen (basically the Hainish equivalent of Star Trek’s Federation) is to venture to the kingdom of Gatay, on the planet Werel, to observe and partake in one of that kingdoms holidays—indeed the titular holiday, the Day of Forgiveness. With Solly are two men, a guide and a bodyguard: the former is not so important but the latter will become our second protagonist, so let’s go through each of them in an orderly fashion, yeah?
First there’s San, the guide, who is somewhat smarmy but still useful, acting as Mr. Exposition for both Solly and the audience, letting us in on some cultural nuances of Gatay, “showing [Solly] with a bare hint what was expected or what would be a gaffe.” And we’ll need that guidance too, because Gatay, being part of Werel, is not at all what we’d call progressive or a libertarian paradise; there are rules to be followed. The first thing Solly learns is that being a woman in Gatay sucks some major dick: your capacity to speak with others is limited and you’re not allowed to partake in male activities—which, in Gatay, is most things. There are exeptions, of course. For one, it’s okay to talk with another woman if the rules of society deem her to not be a “woman” in the full sense of the word, because as it turns out, slaves aren’t really to be considered people here.
Right, so slavery is in vogue on Werel, as it was on Yeowe before the slaves revolted en masse on that planet. “On Werel, members of the dominant caste are called owners; members of the serving class are called assets. Only owners are referred to as men and women; assets are called bondsmen, bondswomen.” So you have people who are, depite being fully-fledged adults, someone else’s property. Some of the conflict that arises throughout the story is Solly’s reluctance to respect other people’s cultures, and indeed her crassness may be her chief character flaw, but in her defense slavery is not a cultural practice worth respecting. (It occurred to me early on that Le Guin probably modeled the slave culture of Werel on the Antebellum South, what with its lack of democracy and its highly decadent upper crust.) As such Solly’s interactions with other characters depends on if they’re “assets” or “owners,” or agents of the Ekumen like herself.
(Another aside: The natives of Werel and Yeowe are noted to be dark-skinned, and I’m sure Le Guin got a small kick, thought she would never say so, out of the irony of creating a culture of dark-skinned slave-owners.)
Speaking of which, we have Teyeo, the bodyguard. Teyeo seems to be a shadowy figure at first, but soon we’ll find he’s about as important and certainly no less heroic than Solly, despite a dark past which continues to haunt him. Teyeo is one of those people who seems mentally predisposed to always be a soldier or involved in military affairs to some extent; in that way he’s rather old-fashioned himself. The third-person all-seeing narrator gives us a rundown of Teyeo’s character, or at least how he is at the outset, with this (and more) to say:
“His reality was the old reality of the veot class, whose men held themselves apart from all men not soldiers and in brotherhood with all soldiers, whether owners, assets, or enemies. As for women, Teyeo considered his rights over them absolute, binding him absolutely to responsible chivalry to women of his own class and protective, merciful treatment of bondswomen. He believed all foreigners to be basically hostile, untrustworthy heathens.”
Mind you that Le Guin basically turns back the clock to give us a recap of events partway into the story, but from Teyeo’s perspective. It’s here that we find out that Teyeo took part in the fight against the slave uprising on Yeowe, which he did less out of wanting to make sure assets were denied their freedom and more as a government man; even so, having one of your heroes (and he is supposed to be heroic) aim his gun against slaves is a bit of a tough pill to swallow. As is made clear, though, these are different cultures which value different things. For example, cross-dressing is perfectly fine on Werel (hmmm), both for actors since, like in the days of Shakespeare, male actors would also play female roles, and for women like Solly who want to sneak into male-oriented gatherings. Indeed Batikam, who is rather famous locally and who catches Solly’s attention, is one of these so-called “transvestite” actors, though he’s not as important to the plot as he would seem at first. In one of the more implausible moments in the story, Bakiman, a stage actor, is shown to not be strictly homosexual, as Solly makes no secret of being horny for him and so they get it on at one point.
(Bakiman, on top of being a crossdresser, both on- and off-stage, is also technically an asset: he and his fellow actors are owned by a company rather than an individual person, which does give them a bit more leeway. Le Guin also has some fun with the reversal of pairing Solly, a woman who dresses like a man so she can see Bakiman perform, with a man who dresses like a woman, seemingly because he likes the aesthetics of women’s clothing. It should come as no surprise that “Forgiveness Day” was up for the James Tiptree, Jr. Otherwise Award, which funnily enough Le Guin won that year for a different story.)
Le Guin is an impressive writer because she wears a multitude of hats, depending on what you’re reading: she could be wearing her anthropology hat, her feminism hat, her humanism hat, her anarchism hat, her Taoism hat, among a few others. “Forgiveness Day” sees Le Guin in full anthropology mode with a dash of feminism; it’s clear that we’re supposed to connect the systemic and inflexible misogyny of Werel with that planet’s normalization of slavery—that the two seek to control what people can and cannot do, to turn people essentially into product, hence “asset” as a euphemism. A gripe I have with this sort of worldbuilding is that for some reason Le Guin thinks it’s fine for whole planets to represent cultures, as opposed to real life where you’ll be in for a rude awakening if you travel from California to Texas (or even from Austin to Houston) expecting the exact same values and customs. If you can get past that, it’s pretty interesting.
There Be Spoilers Here
There both is and is not a lot to say about “Forgiveness Day.” You may notice that I’ve delved into the characters and backstory a fair bit but less so the plot, and that’s because while the backstory is multi-faceted and at times ambiguous, the plot itself is straightforward. I think it’s straightforward. You could theretocially cut out flashbacks and worldbuilding to make this a novelette rather than a novella, but a) it’d be rendered incomprehensible, and b) it’d be way less engrossing. The backstory is the story, you see. The situation Solly and Teyeo end up in is the result of their personal flaws combined with the systemic problems of their environment, as opposed to a Rube Goldberg machine of plot beats.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell:
A woman is sent with a guide and a bodyguard to a kingdom where the woman is play what should be a simple part in a ceremony for one of the kingdom’s big religious holidays. The woman has to contend with this society’s backwards customs regarding the treatment of women, along with slavery being part of everyday life, but ultimately she keeps going with the mission she is to accomplish. One night the woman and her bodyguard are kidnapped by people who at first seem to either want to kill her or hold her for ransom, but they’re shown to be well-intentioned—if incompetent. As it turns out the woman was spared an assassination attempt at the ceremony by some religious fanatics. Eventually, after sitting things out and doing some rather intimate bonding, the woman and her bodyguard are rescued with a non-violent solution and they all live happily ever after.
Correct me if I’m wrong about that, I’ll be sure to edit this part and act like I didn’t make that mistake to begin with. Point being, the back end of the novella is concerned with Solly and Teyeo being stuck in a room together and talking for the most part. There’s a good deal of paranoia, including the possibility that the Ekumen conspired to have Solly killed and blame it on those who support the slave revolt on Yeowe. Loyalties are not always clear, “slaves and masters caught in the same trap of radical distrust and self-protection,” with the paranoia being implicitly a byproduct of a culture that treats a fraction of its people as property. The disease of slavery permeates all social interactions and the happy ending for Solly and Teyeo implies both Werel and Yeowe being rid of this practice.
The story’s explicit anti-slavery stance and far less explicit anti-capitalist stance makes me wonder how neo-Confederates (i.e., slavery apologists) reacted to it and the book it became a part of at the time. This is an older and more mature Le Guin (I’m not sure if the Le Guin who wrote The Word for World Is Forest would’ve made Teyeo so sympathetic), but still this is Le Guin with a clear purpose. Contemporary reviewers seemed to laud “Forgiveness Day” and Four Ways to Forgiveness as Le Guin’s strongest science-fictional statement in quite a few years, and I have to agree that even this lone novella lacks the low energy and frivolous writing that one would expect from an author was then in the fourth decade of her career.
A Step Farther Out
I don’t entirely understand this one, but that has less to do with Le Guin’s writing, which is often lucid if also given to chunky expository paragraphs, and more to do with the density of the worldbuilding. While it is functionally a standalone narrative, “Forgiveness Day” alludes to a much larger conflict that can’t be summed up in a single novella, so it’s no wonder that we’re given a few other stories to explore the setting further. Le Guin always had an anthropologist’s mentality with storytelling, but it seems like that side of her only became more prominent as she aged, with the Hainish story “Mountain Ways” (review here) also being ultimately more concerned with the background of the characters than the characters themselves; unlike that story, though, “Forgiveness Day” has an actual ending, and a pretty good one to boot. Five months after publication we got another novella centered round Werel and Yeowe in Asimov’s, with “A Man of the People.” Given how these stories were published close together and how they relate to each other, that certainly gives me an idea for a future review…
It’s the first day of April… and I don’t have a prank in mind.
I’m just gonna do what I do with every one of these forecast blogs, which is to give you a quick update on things and then list off what I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. Hope you did your taxes well in advance and aren’t scrambling now! If you’re a filthy American, that is.
Anyway, the biggest thing to happen to this blog recently has been the opportunity to get interviewed by German warrior queen and Hugo winner Cora Buhlert (link here), which naturally gave me the warm fuzzies. This is a relatively young blog, but already I feel I’ve made major progress with it, and it’s been a reliable excuse for discovering new (to me) authors and returning to old favorites. My goal with this site has been to indulge my own quirky and admittedly retro-leaning love of genre fiction, with a literary if also highly colloquial bent, and on that front it’s been a success. Honestly there are too few active fanzines in the field right now, with a good number of them being one-man shows like myself, and goddamnit we deserve to get more notice among industry regulars.
Now, where was I?
Right. It’s been what, four months since I covered a so-called complete novel? And uhh, we still haven’t gotten there yet: April is thirty days, not 31. Sad. Just one more month, I promise. In the meantime we have a serial, two novellas, and two short stories. Admittedly we have more familiar faces in the lineup than I would normally prefer, but given my schedule as of late I’ve made an exception for myself. Let’s see what we have.
For the serial:
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. Published in New Worlds, July to October 1967. Disch is one of those American authors who appeared regularly in New Worlds during the height of the New Wave era, alongside Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. This is a four-part serial, but don’t be fooled! From what I can tell each installment is pretty short, which adds up because the novel in book form is like 180 pages. Short, but potent—or so I’ve heard. I’ve read a few short works from Disch before but this will be my first novel of his.
For the novellas:
“Forgiveness Day” by Ursula K. Le Guin. From the November 1994 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella, and winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. I hate to say this as someone who likes Le Guin a lot, but I’ve yet to read the linked collection Four Ways to Forgiveness—thought apparently now it’s titled Five Ways to Forgiveness (they found another one). Three of the stories in this collection were published in Asimov’s in fairly close succession, with “Forgiveness Day” being the first.
“Memorare” by Gene Wolfe. From the April 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This is one of those F&SF special author issues. Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella. Wolfe made his first SFF sale in 1951, but he didn’t start writing regularly until the mid-’60s, where from then on he became one of the field’s most distinguished authors. He’s most famous for The Book of the New Sun and the fix-up novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but Wolfe did not shy away from short fiction, with “Memorare” as but one example.
For the short stories:
“The Big Night” by Henry Kuttner. From the June 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. I covered C. L. Moore again last month, so I figure I ought to do Kuttner the same. The two are often treated as a package deal, forming like Voltron under their own names as well as a variety of pseudonyms, especially for the high-paying Astounding Science Fiction. Kuttner also appeared in several magazines apart from Moore. Take “The Big Night,” for example, which Kuttner had published under the pseudonym Hudson Hastings.
“The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” by George R. R. Martin. From the May 1976 issue of Fantastic. Martin has spent the past few decades so entrenched as a fantasist that it’s easy to forget there was a time when he mostly wrote science fiction instead, and that it was fantasy which was reserved for once in a blue moon. In 1976 you had two fantasy magazines: F&SF and Fantastic, and the latter paid worse. But Martin was good buddies with Ted White, Fantastic‘s editor, and this saw the publication of Martin’s first “pure” fantasy.
That’s it, that’s all I have. I take way too long to come up with these forecasts. I actually wrote this about a week ago; you’re only reading it now. Funny how time works. And as for those adventures in time and space…
William Tenn was, along with C. M. Kornbluth and Henry Kuttner, one of the great satirists of old-timey SF. He made his debut in 1946 with “Alexander the Bait,” a story which takes an unusually ambivalent (for the time) view of space flight, but more importantly he followed that up with “Child’s Play,” a brutal but genuinely funny comedy that rightly saw adaptation more than once. His 1953 story “The Liberation of Earth” might be his most famous, although while written for Galaxy Science Fiction it was deemed too ambivalent about both sides of the Cold War; it instead saw print in Future Science Fiction. “Ambivalent” is indeed a word that could describe the general mood of Tenn’s fiction—less hysterical than Kornbluth’s writing but also less prone to moments of humanity.
Tenn’s output declined after 1960, and by 1970 he had all but retired from the field. A hardcore short story writer, and despite living to be damn near 90 years old, Tenn left behind only one novel, Of Men and Monsters, whose title makes it sound more like a short story collection than a novel. Thus Tenn’s SF output is relatively small; his entire SF output, including Of Men and Monsters, has been collected in a measly two volumes (see below). Today’s story, “Medusa Was a Lady!,” seems at first to be Tenn venturing into fantasy writing—at first. More on that later.
First published in the October 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures, which is on the Archive. This is one of Tenn’s more obscure stories; it’s been reprinted only three times, and under a different title: the less pulpy but lamer sounding “A Lamp for Medusa.” It was reprinted as one half of a Belmont Double, paired with Dave Van Arnam’s “The Players of Hell,” which if you can believe it is even more obscure. Then there’s your best shot at a book reprint, which is Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume II, from NESFA Press, the second of the two aforementioned volumes collecting all of Tenn’s SF.
Percy S. Yuss (we’re really doing this) is just your average Joe who may have made a bad investment and nabbed an apartment whose rent is a little too low. Immediately something both we and Percy learn is that if something sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is false. Mrs. Danner, the ratty landlady, demands an advance payment from Percy, who gives it despite having reservations about how much of a fixer-upper the apartment is; it doesn’t help that, for some reason, belongings from previous tenants have never been picked up or put away. But because he’s a modern man who disdains superstition Percy is convinced that nothing too weird could be going on, although while he is a bit of a chump he is no stone-cold idiot, and rightly suspects that something fishy might be going on.
Quickly realizing that the apartment is in such bad shape that it’s almost not even worth the tiny rent demanded for it, Percy tries to make the best of the situation when, being the protagonist of a William Tenn story, something weirder and more inexplicable happens to him. He finds a piece of parchment which, for one, seems to be made of animal skin, but even weirder is what’s written on it: a poem, or a fragment of a poem, that relates to Greek Mythology—more specifically the legend of Perseus and Medusa. The dramatic irony of this is that the fragment does not name Perseus or Medusa, so while we the readers are aware of the myth, Percy remains ignorant of the connection. I’ll quote the fragment here:
“…He slew the Gorgon and winged back, bringing to the islanders
The head with its writhing snake-locks, the terror that froze to stone.”
Reading the fragment has an effect that Percy could not have anticipated. When he takes a bath he gets isekai’d to the middle of an ocean, in the bathtub with nothing but a towel and soap in his mouth. He meets a sea serpent who uhh, talks? Which surprisingly does not frighten Percy or drive him into an existential crisis; actually he takes the encounter with the talking sea serpent (whose dialogue reminds me of Douglas Adams) pretty well. The sea serpent at first believes Percy to be part of the Perseus prophecy, but Percy’s hostility drives the sea serpent away. A running thing with this story is that, depending on whom Percy is interacting with, he’ll either be denying the prophecy or deliberately playing into it, since he gets constantly mistaken for the Greek hero. Or perhaps, by some chance, Percy is really Perseus but something happened to make him forget?
Readers of a certain pre-Tolkien era of American fantasy may feel that the situation Percy gets thrown into is oddly familiar. I’m of course thinking of the Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and even L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky, and I have little doubt that Tenn had at least read up on the former. A normal man gets thrown into a fantasy world that operates on a different internal logic from the normal world, and said normal man has to figure his way out or perish, with often comedic results. Truth be told this was not unusual for fantasy published in Unknown, and we could go back even further with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series to see basically the same formula. (The John Carter novels are very loosely considered SF, but they arguably read more as fantasy from a modern perspective.) “Medusa Was a Lady!” very much follows in the footsteps of the Harold Shea stories, but with a couple twists.
Percy uses his bathtub cum boat to land on the island on Seriphos, which is where, in the myth, Perseus as a child and his mother Danae land. Had he known about the myth in advance Percy could use this to his advantage, but because he doesn’t recognize the myth for what it is—that he basically matches the physical description of Perseus (albeit scrawnier)—he probably would’ve done fine right away, but unfortunately for Percy he doesn’t know shit about the myth. He doesn’t know who Perseus and Danae are, which causes issues because he’s accused of impersonating a mythical figure—a crime punishable by slow cooking over a fire.
Some hijinks ensue. We’re introduced to King Polydectes, who might be the funniest character in the story, being a stereotypical decadent monarch who looks for any excuse to “thin out” the overpopulated little island society he runs. He orders executions very casually and comes up with punishments for crimes seemingly on a whim, and because the island is so small people often serve multiple roles, such that literally anyone can be a juror in a “court” case. I would complain about how the ’50s slang coming out of the islanders’ mouths stretches plausibility, but this is not a story that claims to be plausible, and also the slang adds to the snappy tone of the comedy. Again I almost have to wonder if Tenn’s brand of humor influenced Douglas Adams’s, although I seriously doubt that.
Awaiting his execution, which is set for the following day, Percy gets thrown into the same cell as a fellow person from his own world: Ann Drummond (like Andromeda?), who was one of the former tenants in the apartment Percy had rented out, and who had apparently gotten thrown into this world through the same means. We’re also formally introduced to Hermes, who had appeared earlier but then vanished from the scene, a mythological figure who rather conspicuously had golden skin. Hermes offers help to Percy and Ann so that they can fulfill the prophecy, and evidently he knows a great deal more than they do—only a fraction of which he lets on. Something to keep in mind with Percy’s journey is that he never entirely understands anything; when he tries ringing an explanation out of someone he only gets one small part out of a much greater whole, assuming what the person is saying is true. Hermes doesn’t like to Percy and Ann per se, but we’ll come to find later that there may be an ulterior motive for getting Percy to fill his role as a makeshift Perseus.
Anyway, we stay like this for a while. The pacing of this novella is a bit odd; it spends a great deal of time on characters talking and rationalizing things while also making surprisingly little progress in terms of getting from one place to another. By the time we get to the next day and Percy and Ann are thrown into the arena as an alternative method of execution (Hermes had sabotaged the pot that was supposed to be used to cook them the previous night) we’re already about halfway into the story. While Tenn was some five years into his writing career, he evidently was less sure about writing longer stories (specifically of novella length), at least up to this point. There’s enough material in “Medusa Was a Lady!” to make a full novel out of, but then Tenn was not a novelist by instinct, so we have to live with what admittedly feels like a novel that got Swiss cheese’d into a novella.
Anyway, this fight in the arena with a bizarre multi-headed monster (sort of like a hydra but uncannily more humanoid) is the closest we get to a satisfying action sequence, because after this point the story reveals itself to be something quite different altogether.
There Be Spoilers Here
When I first heard about this story I thought it odd that it should be classified as science fiction, since its premise clearly struck me as fantasy; well, not unlike with Percy, what I’d seen was not the full picture. “Medusa Was a Lady!” is, in actuality, science fiction masquerading as fantasy. Well goddamnit, it looks like we been bamboozled! Hermes comes in with anti-gravity boots, which Percy will also use later, and we’re even introduced to a mad scientist in the form of Professor Gray, who (predictably) was also a tenant who got thrown into this world. It’s here that we find out that not only is the novella science fiction, but more specifically it’s a multiverse story. That’s right, there’s no escaping the goddamn multiverse thing.
More interestingly, you may be wondering about the fight with Medusa, which we know is gonna happen because it’s on the cover and because it’s “part of the prophecy.” The “fight” with Medusa lasts literally a paragraph and its sheer brevity took me by surprise, partly because of that and also because Medusa doesn’t seem to put up a fight. How strange, that the infamous Gorgon, the snake woman who turns men to stone, should lose her head so easily. As it turns out, in his willingness to fill a role, like an actor on a stage, Percy does something he probably should not have done, because it turns out that Medusa is not the villain of the story. Hermes and the other gold-skinned people, the Olympians who wanted Medusa dead so badly, only told Percy a fraction of the context for the conflict between the Olympians and the Gorgons; it could be considered one big lie by way of omission. The good news is that Medusa isn’t quite dead once her head is in the bag, which leads to what I can only call an infodump of staggering length.
If I tried to explain the whole backstory for Medusa and the Gorgons I would be here all day, which is a problem because a) I don’t have the time, and b) Tenn’s explanation via telepathy is incredibly convoluted, never mind a massive infodump to plop in the reader’s lap in the last, oh, ten pages of the novella. I’m not sure if Tenn did this as a serious attempt or if he was making fun of something, but the third act of the novella is bogged down with a mountain of exposition, followed by rushed action. The basic idea of the thing is a neat subversion, because we just went in assuming Medusa would be the Big Bad™ of the story, or in more typical Tenn fashion would be more of a shrew than a conventional evil-doer, but the twist is much harder to anticipate—admirably so. I just wish the pacing in particular wasn’t so uneven, with the climactic battle with the gold-skinned Olympians lacking room to breathe and thus is robbed of some catharsis.
The ending, at least, is clever, even if it plays into Tenn’s pessimism. There’s the suggestion that, even if Percy did get to be the man who now knows better, he will still get played for a chump at the end. The implied cruelty is logical, if also predictable, while also implying possible paradoxes and other issues with people meeting themselves via the multiverse. Honestly I think I’m done with the whole multiverse thing for a while.
A Step Farther Out
In a way I was disappointed, but in another my expectations were very much met. Joe Tillotson’s excellent cover and the premise give the impression of a fantasy adventure, which evidently Tenn was not very interested in writing; that or he tried but failed to write compelling action. Thankfully, most of the story is filled with dialogue, and this is where Tenn excels, in that he packs a lot of jokes and a lot of those jokes are quite funny. “Medusa Was a Lady!” is ultimately a comedy, and an effective one, being admirably less a direct parody of sword and sorcery, or even Greek mythology, so much as a humorous commentary on the intermingling of fact and mythology. Nothing Percy is told turns out to be entirely true, but conversely every bit of deception has at least a kernel of truth in it, which only befits Tenn’s pessimistic worldview. I recommend not going into this one with the expectation of reading a fantasy adventure, but if you want a genre-bending comedy that’s a fair bit cerebral, it’s a good one.
Ncany Kress debuted nearly half a century ago (you can actually find her first short stories in Baen-era Galaxy), but despite her longevity she continues to feel like a “modern” author. She’s been a mainstay of Asimov’s Science Fiction for almost as long, being evidently one of Gardner Dozois’s favorites. She was, for a short time, married to fellow SF author Charles Sheffield. My first encounter with Kress was some years back, with her 1984 novella “Trinity,” with combines the SF premise of cloning with a believable and slightly demented human drama. Much more recently I read her Nebula-winning short story “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” which I have to admit I was less impressed with. Ah, but today’s story is a good ‘un.
What I like about Kress is that she seems fond of writing in the novella mode, which (warm take) I would say is the ideal length for SF. Not too long, but just long enough to give a few major characters their due and also give the reader a neat idea. Quite a few of Kress’s novellas have been up for awards, with her 1991 novella “Beggars in Spain” (later turned into a novel) being one of the most acclaimed SF novellas of the ’90s. “Dancing on Air” was itself up for the Hugo and Nebula, and even placed #1 in the Asimov’s Readers’ poll for Best Novella. There’s a good reason for this.
From the July 1993 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It’s been reprinted a decent number of times. It appeared in the 1994 edition of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It got a chapbook edition at one point from Tachyon Publications. Then there’s the Nancy Kress collection Beaker’s Dozen. If you’re in a collecting mood there’s The Best of Nancy Kress from Subterrainean Press, a fancy hardcover that goes for, hmm, over $60 on average used. Have fun!
We begin with a murder myster of sorts. Two ballet dancers in New York have been found dead in the past month; both cases seemed to be foul play. Aside from being dancers, both women were discovered to have been bioenhanced—their bodies modified artificially (and illegally) so as to make them sturdier and more refined performers, with the latter dancer she had apparently gotten bioenhanced shortly before her death. The head of the New York City Ballet, Anton Privitera, is staunchly anti-bioenhancement; he has a reputation to uphold, which immediately makes him a suspect. I’ll say here and now, though, that if you’re reading “Dancing on Air” with the specific expectation of it being a murder mystery, you’ll probably be disappointed. Luckily for the rest of us, Kress has different aims in mind.
The plot is split in two. First we have a first-person narrative by Susan, a reporter whose teen daughter Deborah is a hopeful in the School of American Ballet, “the juvenile province of Anton Privitera’s kingdom.” Susan is worried about Deborah for a few reasons: she’s been hanging out with Susan’s deadbeat ex-husband, and of more urgent importance, she’s been curious about bioenhancement. The other half of the story is about Caroline, one of the top dancers at the New York City Ballet, practically a living legend in her field, and already looking to be washed out at 26. Caroline, being a star in the dance world and a possible target for these recent murders, is given a bodyguard in the form of Angel, an uplifted dog. Yes, Angel can talk, and it freaks everyone out whenever he does that. Angel is of course bioenhanced, but people don’t think as much about engineering an animal like this. Bioenhancement for humans is a good deal riskier, both in the legality of it and possible unknown effects.
There were several kinds of bioenhancement. All of them were experimental, all of them were illegal in the United States, all of them were constantly in flux as new discoveries were made and rushed onto the European, South American, and Japanese markets. It was a new science, chaotic and contradictory, like physics at the start of the last century, or cancer cures at the start of this one. No bioenhancements had been developed specifically for ballet dancers, who were an insignificant portion of the population. But European dancers submitted to experimental versions, as did American dancers who could travel to Berlin or Copenhagen or Rio for the very expensive privilege of injecting their bodies with tiny, unproven biological “machines.”
Something odd about the Carolina thread is that it’s narrated from Angel’s perspective. Like with Susan it’s first-person narration, but it’s in the present tense, presumably because while he is smarter than the average dog, Angel doesn’t seem to have the concept of time nailed down. He’s also hardwired to only respond to certain commands from Caroline, which Caroline finds out much to her own dismay. Anton and his business manager John Cole, who had Angel uplifted in the first place, are a shady pair.
It’s the ’90s, and while “Dancing on Air” isn’t cyberpunk it does happen to cover one of the hallmarks of that movement. We’re at the point where we’re a good deal past Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” but Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age was still two years off. The technological breakthrough of the story is nanotechnology, and you know what that means…
At first glance it reads like Suspiria but with nanomachines, but while there’s a good amount of suspense for most of the story, it’s far from horror. Rather the suspense comes less from the murder mystery and more from uneasy parental relationships on both ends. Susan tries and fails to reason with Deborah, who seems too caught up in her own childish ambition to see the danger; meanwhile, as Susan investigates the dance academy, and finds out more about Caroline, things don’t look so good for that woman’s personal life. Of course what Susan doesn’t find out is then revealed to us via Angel’s narration, and it’s in these scenes where Caroline is at her most candid. There’s some dramatic irony at play, since we get to know things about each of the two leads that one does not know about the other.
This two-pronged narrative would be more difficult to pull off with a short story, and as a novel there would be the temptation to add an extra subplot, but at about 20,000 words “Dancing on Air” feels just right in terms of how it’s structured. Each thread has what the other lacks, basically. Susan’s plot reads almost like what you’d see in a film noir or police procedural, while Caroline’s plot is more akin to a character study; the scenes with Caroline and Angel are shorter and punchier than Susan’s.
Now, about those nanomachines. Bioenhancement in the story is more or less replacing one’s own cells with these tiny little weirdos. If you’ve read “Blood Music” where, SPOILERS, the scientist who experiments on himself with the nanomachines gets taken over by them, then you can sort of predict the downside of nanotechnology in this story. I won’t get into specifics right now, though, because how exactly Kress decides to show the monkey’s paw curling with the nanomachines is interesting in the context of what amounts to a family drama. Susan’s relationship with her daughter and Caroline’s with her mother are the focal points of the story, not so much the nanomachines; the science-fictional element exists in service of a human narrative that could potentially happen even without anything science-fictional.
One last thing to mention before we get to spoilers (because I don’t think this is much of a spoiler) is that Caroline’s mother, Anna, is terrible. She and Caroline don’t interact for nearly all of the latter’s plot thread, but we run into her from Susan’s perspective and she’s a nasty piece of work. While Anton comes off the most suspicious, Anna is shown to be a crass, selfish, insensitive old woman who doesn’t seem to care about her daughter’s wellbeing. You might be thinking, “Well she can’t be that bad, right?” Oh, just you wait! You’re gonna “love” what happens in the climax.
There Be Spoilers Here
I wish more stories introduced a murder mystery only to use the mystery itself as a red herring. Anton is introduced as an obvious suspect and by extension an obvious red herring, but not only is it not Anton who killed those women, it’s not anyone among the cast that we know either; it’s just some guy. It’s like Kress was misdirecting us with that thread, and I think she did that pretty well, because the mystery was interesting enough, the thread of familial turmoil is not only more interesting but also ultimately more relevant with regards to the technology Kress has given us.
Caroline may have been saved by a crazy murderer, but her dancing career is coming to an end regardless: for reasons she can’t grasp she has been underperforming horribly as of late, with critics taking note. Unbeknownst to herself (at first), Caroline is an experiment. Dancers are routinely tested for bioenhancement (bioenhancement seeming having replaced steroids for dancers and other athletic types in-story), and it’d be easy enough to do because you could compare the original cells to the nanomachines. It’s here that Kress brings in a rather scary question: What if there were no original cells to compare the nanomachines to? Adults have been known to get bioenhanced, but what about children? Or, even scarier, what about fetuses? It would be possible to experiment on fetuses meant to be aborted anyway, but what if these fetuses… weren’t?
Am I the only one who’s reminded of Greg Egan right now?
Upon attending a science conference in Paris that’s supposed to reveal some crucial info about bioenhancement, Susan finds out two things: bioenhancement is basically a death sentence, and also that there were fetuses some three decades ago who were subjected to bioenhancement in vitro, with some still walking around as adults. One of the scientists who was set to make this public announcement killed himself right before the conference, apparently out of guilt.
Caroline Olson, Deborah said, had been fired because she missed rehearsals and performances. The Times had called her last performance “a travesty.” Because her body was eating itself at a genetic level, undetectable by the City Ballet bioscans that assumed you could compare new DNA patterns to the body’s original, which no procedure completely erased. But for Caroline, the original itself had carried the hidden blueprint for destruction. For twenty-six years.
The reason why Carolina tested negative for bioenhancement is because her whole body has been replaced by nanomachines—probably before she had even left the womb. She’s kind of a cyborg if you think about it. It would also explain why her body has become conspicuously fragile as of late despite her age; the nanomachines are slowly eating her body from the inside. Caroline has an expiration date, although when that is exactly is unknown. Her mother, in wanting to create the perfect dancer that she herself could not be, used her daughter like a guinea pig and, unbeknownst to Caroline, gave her a short lifespan. Which sounds monstrous, because it is. Caroline is not happy to hear that her mother has used her like some tool her whole life, so in the climax she orders Angel to KILL THAT BITCH! YEAH! FUCKIN’ GET HER ASS! Which, look, I know it’s supposed to be tragic, but it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for Anna when Angel goes after her.
The ending is bittersweet, although it leans more on being simply a downer. Sure, the murderer had been caught and the world now knows about the risks with bioenhancement. Angel even lives at the end! Albeit minus a leg, on account of Susan’s intervention. But Caroline is institutionalized and Deborah, being too young and ambitious, throws caution to the wind and gets herself bioenhanced. It’s a dumb risk to take, but as Susan points out, in her bitterness, ballet dancers tend to wreck their bodies in pursuit of their art—only not as dramatically as this. Withered knees. Hip replacements. Arthritis. Why not bioenhancement, the new cancer of the digital age? The pain may be worth it, if it means being perfect for a few years…
A Step Farther Out
“Dancing on Air” is a two-pronged family drama, and pretty good family drama at that. The nanotechnology at the heart of the story causes issues, but ultimately the problem is a people problem. The technology is science fiction but the human anguish is not. Ultimately it’s a story about abuse; it’s about parents forcing their wills on their children, with cruel and horrible results. Susan, Caroline, and the others aren’t perfect, but they (except for Caroline’s mother) remain sympathetic because their desires are sympathetic. The narrative of parental abuse may hit home for some people, but for others (like me) it’s an effective allegory about the uneasy partnership between science and artistry. The ending is more bitter than sweet, but Kress is never less than humane with this outing.
It feels weird to introduce Timothy Zahn, because he’s a somewhat famous author who’s famous for reasons that have nothing to do with this site. Zahn debuted at the tail end of the ’70s and quickly became a regular contributor to Analog Science Fiction under Stanley Schmidt’s editorship, and not surprisingly he also became a regular at Baen Books. Zahn’s fiction, from what I can tell, skews toward good old-fashioned space opera, but with more attention paid to character work than some of his fellows. What really gained Zahn recognition, though, was his attachment to the old Star Wars expanded universe, being perhaps the most prominent and most acclaimed author to write for that (now defunct) continuity. Thrawn, Zahn’s single most famous creation, is so beloved that he’s actually crawled his way into post-Disney buyout Star Wars properties. Zahn’s Star Wars cred is so prominent, in fact, that a lot of people seem unaware that he’s written things that have nothing to do with that franchise.
Not that I’m one to talk.
“Cascade Point” was the first story of Zahn’s that I’ve read, and so far it’s the only thing by Zahn that I’ve read. Don’t worry, I’ll fix that eventually. It was written during an especially prolific period for Zahn, and even nabbed him a Hugo (despite not getting a Nebula nomination) for Best Novella. Technically a reread, because I know for a fact I read it as part of The New Hugo Winners (see below), but I basically remember nothing about it from that first reading. In hindsight I think I just didn’t give it a lot of attention, which is a shame because I can see why readers at the time would’ve liked it a lot.
The December 1983 issue of Analog is not on the Internet Archive. Not on Luminist, either. Same goes for any Analog issues after 1979. That’s right, if you want it you’ll have to buy a hard copy with dollars, pounds, shekels, and so on, which is what I did. Like I said, I try to read these stories as they had originally appeared unless it’s a reprint. What’s weird is that despite the Hugo, and despite Zahn’s status, “Cascade Point” has not been reprinted often. The New Hugo Winners, edited by Isaac Asimov and an uncredited (for some reason) Martin H. Greenberg, is easy enough to find used. That Doug Beekman cover is so good that they reused it for the first edition of Cascade Point and Other Stories, and I don’t blame them. Most interestingly (to me) it was bundled with Greg Bear’s “Hardfought” as a Tor Double, that series packaging Hugo- and Nebula-winning novellas together. Finally, if you want a reprint published in the 21st century we have The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, edited by Mike Ashley.
Pall (seems like a bastardization of “Paul,” but would be funnier and indeed is porbably pronounced like “pal”) Durriken has a fine enough job as the captain of the Aura Dancer, a space liner that’s not what you would call first-class. Durriken is not the most sociable of men, reliying most on Alana Keal, his right-hand (wo)man and the person onboard he gets along with the most. The plot involves a trip to the colony planet of Taimyr with a small number of passengers in tow, but we really get a quality-over-quantity deal here as two of the passengers, Rik Bradley and his psychiatrist Dr. Hammerfield Lanton, are a bit of an odd pair. These two, as it turns out, will cause some issues.
As you know if you’ve read enough science fiction, space travel is highly impractical at best; without faster-than-light travel or some way to cheat around spacetime it would years at bare minimum just to leave one’s solar system. Of course FTL as we understand it is impossible, something I suspect was considered true even in 1983, which of course did not stop authors from going with the “ceating around spacetime” option. Here, we have a series of warp points called cascade points, in which not only can ships basically teleport but also seem to intersect with alternate universe. Yes, this is another multiverse narrative, sort of, but the multiverse is not made as big a deal of as you would think. As far as anyone can tell a ship going through a cascade point is not liable to enter an alternate universe by accident—which is not to say it can’t happen…
Passengers and crew are supposed to take drugs that knock them out cold during a ship’s maneuvering through a cascade point, minding that these points are days apart; in other words, everyone goes unconscious except for the person piloting the ship. First-class ships like luxury liners can afford to have an autopilot installed for cascade point maneuvers, but the Aura Dancer is decidedly not first-class and so Durriken has to stick it out alone, every time, without losing his sanity. Given that it’s set far in the future, robots and computers play a shockingly small role in the literal mechanics of the setting. I’ll elaborate on this a bit later, but I’ll say for now that, looking back on it, this lack of computerization is one of those signs that this novella was not of its time, but actually before its time. It feels like a Star Trek episode, like from the ’60s, the original show—not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
So, about the cover. In case I didn’t make it clear before, I really like it. Some cover stories get covers that have little to do with the actual story, but this is not one of them. Sometimes with a cover story you can tell which scene exactly inspired the cover art, and in the case of “Cascade Point” it’s the first time we see the effects someone awake would experience when going through one of those cascade points.
I will never understand how the first person to test the Colloton Drive ever made it past this point. The images silently surrounding me a bare arm’s length away were life-size, lifelike, and—at first glance, anyway—as solid as the panels and chairs they seemed to have displaced. It took a careful look to realize they were actually slightly transparent, like some kind of colored glass, and a little experimentation at that point would show they had less substance than air. They were nothing but ghosts, specters straight out of childhood’s scariest stories. Which merely added to the discomfort… because all of them were me.
Durriken sees alternate versions of himself when going through a cascade point, or rather the ghosts of different versions of himself since he can’t interact with them and they, conversely, are unaware of his existence. It’s a bit of a psychedelic effect, and it makes for a good illustration, but it’s not the root of the conflict; nay, the root of the conflict is people. See, Dr. Lanton is treating Bradley for neurosis, and Lanton has this brilliant idea to use the cascade points as a possible way to treat Bradley, keeping him awake through the multiverse hijinks. As you can tell, this is a horrible idea. Lanton is the closest the story has to a conventional villain, although he’s less malicious and more laughably incompetent—so ethically dubious that I honestly have to wonder if he’s based on Eugene Landy. Hmm, Lanton, Landy…
Lanton’s ideas about treatment are so obviously bad that even Durriken feels the need to point it out; but then, Lanton is a paying customer and a passenger on Durriken’s ship. The human drama comes from Lanton’s treatment methods but also some equipment he brings aboard that a) he didn’t consult any of the crew about in advance, and b) might contain materials that could interfere with the ship’s delicate maneuvering balance. For instance, if some device Lanton brought aboard just so happened contained a specific and rather rare metal that would throw the ship’s cascade point maneuvering off—well, you can guess what might happen. For now, thought, the big problem is simply dealing with the asshole and also making sure Alana, who has a history of falling in love with her “patients” (it’s a good thing she’s not a nurse), doesn’t get too attached to Bradley.
You have the relationship square of Durriken, Alana, Lanton, and Bradley; there are other characters with names, but you’re not gonna remember them. Would pose a problem if this was a novel, but being a 20,000-word novella leaves only so much room for character, and the characters Zahn does focus on are pretty fun to read about, even if some of their antics can wander beyond the realm of plausibility. I seriously doubt, for one, that Lanton would be a licensed psychiatrist who’s allowed a seemingly endless supply of drugs and gadgets; maybe it would’ve been plausible in 1983, given changing medical practice standards, but certainly not now. Alana, while she’s charismatic, is also a bit of a satellite, with her relationship with Bradley dominating her character for most of the story.
Durriken is a fun protagonist, though, which is good considering he’s also the narrator. Writing a first-person narrator is always a dangerous game, because as a reader you’re basically sitting down and having a one-way conversation with this person for however many minutes or hours. Thign is, the person spewing words at you could be a real annoying prick, but thankfully Durriken has just enough of a sense of humor without detouring into asshole territory. His objections to Lanton’s methods are super-reasonable (a little too understated, if anything) and it’s clear that he cares about his crew and his ship while also wishing he could have a better life for himself. Seeing alternate versions of himself is disorienting just visually, but it’s also unnerving for him to think about all the ways his life could’ve gone better or worse. Not too philosophical, but it’s fine character work.
There Be Spoilers Here
Early in the story we hear, rather passively, that ships have occasionally gone missing mid-voyage; no wreckage or signs of piracy or system failure, but rather ships just straight-up vanishing into thin air. The Aura Dancer is a secured vessel, but the fact that these vanishings remain unexplained doesn’t help Durriken’s conscience. He’s right to be worried, too; turns out Lanton brought aboard a gadget with a certain rare metal inside it that would mess with the ship’s cascade point maneuvering, requiring compensation, but more importantly it sends the ship more off-course than anyone could’ve expected. When we finally get to Taimyr we find… nothing. Nobody waiting for the ship. No buildings. Not even the remains of buildings. It’s as if the world had never been colonized, which gets Durriken thinking…
Basically, the Aura Dancer hopped into an alternate universe where Taimyr remains uninhabited. Thanks a lot, Lanton! Keep in mind that the situation is more complicated than I’m letting on, but that’s the gist of it. “Cascade Point” is arguably hard SF, but it’s such a loaded term that it could apply to anything that has even the most tenuous connection to real science. I’m not a scientist or someone with a background in physics (I majored in film studies) so I’m just the kind of person Zahn would cater to when he goes on about Ming metal and cascade points and other invented nonsense. My general rule is that if a story’s science can’t be easily disproved by a middle schooler then it’s fine enough for me, I usually won’t get hung up on inaccuracies, in which case “Cascade Point” passes easily.
What’s important is that with the heightened stakes, the character drama intensifies. There’s a bit of romantic tension between Durriken and Alana, on top of Alana’s deal with Bradley, but luckily Zahn keeps their relationship platonic; they’re very good friends and it’s clear that they trust each other more than anyone else on the ship. So what’s the solution? To make a long story short, going backwards. There are extra steps, but again, that’s the gist of it. Crazy. How come nobody’s done this before? Well, as far as we know anyway. The potential for ships to hop across universes is pretty vast, a vastness that’s only hinted at here. The ending is rather happy-go-lucky with Durriken saving the day and Alana giving him a figurative pat on the back, albeit Lanton gets away with his idiocy. Disappointing.
The very last scene is pretty good, though. It brings closure to Durriken’s character arc while giving us something genuinely heartwarming. Not necessary from a plot angle, but I’m glad Zahn included it.
A Step Farther Out
I chose this for review partly because it’s one of those stories where I’m pretty sure I didn’t give it the attention it needed the first time around, and partly because I thought it’d be interesting to read/review it in close proximity with “Hardfought,” since the two were reprinted together at one point. It’s curious to read these two so close together, because aside from being spacefaring hard SF by “macho” ’80s authors, they have very little in common, and their goals are also quite different. “Hardfought” is honestly one of the most impressive pieces of science fiction at any length that I’ve read in a long time—a genuine effort on Bear’s part to write from the future as opposed to simply about the future. “Cascade Point” is considerably more straightforward and less ambitious, which means it goes down easier but there’s less to think about. The cliche about the Hugo winner being the crowd-pleaser and the Nebula winner the “literary” choice is more often untrue than not, but it’s pretty accurate here.
Which is not to say “Cascade Point” isn’t an effective crowd-pleaser. It’s old-fashioned, and it arguably would’ve read as that even at the time, but Zahn knows what he’s doing. I’m a sucker for narratives set on ships, bonus points if there’s good crew dynamics, and this is a good one. It’s a classic Analog narrative in that it’s ultimately a “problem” story: there’s a scientific problem, usually an anomaly, and Our Heroes™ have to solve it. The ingenuity of man triumphs. Like I said, this feels like it could’ve been a Star Trek (specifically TOS or TNG) episode, and not a bad one. Just set your expectations for something that’s pleasing but not mindblowing.