Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Hill" by Tanith Lee

This short story first appeared in 2007 in The Mammoth Book of Monsters edited by indefatigable anthologist Stephen Jones. I read “The Hill” in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.

As in Lee’s “Yellow and Red,” in this story a wealthy Englishman brings home to his fine house something bizarre and deadly from the strange world beyond Europe, and a first person narrator, summoned to the house, is confronted by this danger. In “The Hill” the narrator is a middle-aged woman, a Miss Constable, a professional librarian who regularly offers her services to wealthy book collectors. She arrives at Professor Chazen’s house, which is full of hideous and sinister Asian and African fetishes, to find Chazen absent. Behind the house are numerous cages and pens, inhabited by a weird menagerie of exotic creatures including huge felines, oversized lizards, and giant beetles. Constable sets to work organizing Chazen’s collection of books on such topics as the reanimation of the dead, and over a few days the mystery of Chazen’s absence and the reason he keeps so many foreign beasts unfolds.

The theme of the story is how our senses can deceive us, and how things which appear supernatural can turn out to have rational, mundane explanations. Lee doesn’t make this clear till near the end of the tale, though she does provide enough clues that a reader savvier than I am could have puzzled it out. To me, through most of the story it seemed very possible that Chazen had actually figured out how to raise the dead when in fact something more mundane, but equally strange, is going on.

In instances small and large Lee invites us, and her characters, to believe one thing, and then shows us that we have made assumptions we should not have. For example, early in the story we learn that Constable has never left England – later we learn that she does not consider herself English, and is amused when other characters (as the reader presumably has) think of her as an Englishwoman. There is also a feminist angle to this; people routinely underestimate Constable because she is a woman, and she herself is an accomplice in deceptions that allow men to take credit for her own achievements.

Besides the imperial and feminist issues present, one could do a class analysis of the story; the narrator points out numerous times the servants mispronouncing words (shades of Francoise in Proust), and there are several references to the lives and relationships of working people. Characters’ religious convictions are also taken note of. There is quite a bit of interesting stuff going on in the story.

As was the case with the other stories by Lee I have read recently, I enjoyed the writing style as well as the tone and plot content of “The Hill.” This is another enjoyable story by an admirable writer that fantasy and horror readers should check out.

Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

This is the longest of Howard’s Conan stories, the only Conan novel he wrote. Originally appearing in Weird Tales (1935-36), when it was published in book form in 1950 it was retitled Conan the Conqueror, but nowadays we are calling it Hour of the Dragon again. I read the version in the 2003 Del Rey collection The Bloody Crown of Conan, illustrated by Gary Gianni. I like Gianni’s illustrations; the drawings remind me of the classic American illustrators of the period during which the Conan tales were written, and the cover painting is a good depiction of what (I think) Conan is all about: the unshackled barbaric individual outdoing the men of sophisticated civilized society.

Not unlike his earlier character Kull, Robert Howard’s Conan is an incredibly strong barbarian who takes the throne of a civilized kingdom by force, and then proves himself a good king whose rule benefits his subjects. Of course, not everyone supports Conan's rule of his adopted country of Aquilonia.  Valerius, a relative of the previous king (whom Conan strangled to death) wants to seize the crown himself, and he enlists an evil wizard to help him. That wizard revivifies the mummy of an even more powerful wizard who died three thousand years ago.

The black magic of these wizards enables them to capture Conan and crown Valerius, but with the help of a beautiful woman Conan escapes, and pursues a quest to regain his throne. This quest takes Conan all over the Hyborian world Howard created from bits and pieces of real history and traditional fantasy elements, and Conan has many wild adventures: there are battles between mass armies, an escape from a monster-inhabited dungeon, a consultation with a witch, the rescue of an imprisoned countess, an encounter with a pale vampire princess in a massive black pyramid, and so forth. The people and creatures Conan encounters are boldly drawn archetypes; conniving merchants, evil priests, sexy girls, brave knights, ravenous ghouls, giant snakes, and so on, but I found that they pulsate with life rather than feeling tired.

Partly because Conan in this story is not some kind of a pirate or burglar, but a man trying to do the right thing by his adopted people, and partly because of its peripatetic nature, Hour of the Dragon reminds me of the Barsoom novels I love in which John Carter or some other hero travels hither and yon all over Mars, encountering strange cultures and fighting villains and monsters in his quest to rescue a princess or save Helium from invasion. Of course, Howard is much more cynical and grim than the basically optimistic Burroughs, and Howard also has that Lovecraftian horror edge.

The works of Robert Howard may not be the first place I would look to for political and social commentary, but in the contrast between Conan and Valerius I think we can see a sort of ideology here, especially if we contrast the Conan stories with, say, the Lord of the Rings. In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is the legitimate king of Gondor because he is descended from the royal line, and Tolkein shows Aragorn to be great hero and a great king. Howard, conversely, shows Valerius, though legitimate heir by blood to the throne of Aquilonia, to be a foul fiend and an easy patsy of manipulating foreigners and wizards, while Conan, an alien from a less sophisticated culture, is a very good king. Howard’s vision of who should lead and whom we should admire is more meritocratic and more individualistic than Tolkein’s, we might see Howard's vision as more “modern” or more “American.” Conan is a self-made man whose legitimacy rests on his own abilities and accomplishments, while Aragorn is the product of centuries of tradition whose legitimacy rests on who his ancestors were.

When I first read the Conan stories years ago I thought Hour of the Dragon the best of them, and after reading it this week I am I still inclined to think so; this is a thrilling fast-paced sword and sorcery adventure that justifies the praise Howard receives from his many fans.

Haiku Harvest trans. by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn

My wife bought this small 1962 collection of haikus at the Des Moines Library book sale for 25 cents. It has charming decorations by Jeff Hill in a pleasant blue.

My favorite selections tell a sad little story of loss as well as conjure up an arresting image:

That winter when my
      Faithless lover
      Left me…
How cold the snow seemed

Since my house
     Burned down, I now own
     A better view
Of the rising moon

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Proscription List #2: Silverberg, Fast, Anthony

To help defray the expense of the Lafferty and Van Vogt books I recently purchased, and to make space on my book shelves, I have decided to sell eight SF paperbacks which I have read and am not in love with.  I had decent notes on the last four I blogged about, but the notes about today’s four were lost in a computer hard drive related disaster.  (Always back up your files, kids.)  Still, I think I can dredge up something from the old gray matter to say about each of them.

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg

Like everybody, I like Robert Silverberg; he is one of the heroes of SF, from his fiction to his valuable work as an editor to his interesting descriptions of life as a professional writer to be found in the recent collections of his SF short stories and elsewhere.  But in his prolific career he has written many types of books and tried various different styles, and they aren’t all to my taste.

Lord Valentine’s Castle was a big seller for Silverberg and has been followed by many profitable sequels, but it didn’t move me.  It seems like an homage to Jack Vance; as in various Vance novels, a guy loses and must recover his memory, a guy has a picaresque adventure on a huge planet with many different cultures on it, a guy sparks a revolution.  Unfortunately, Silverberg (in this book at least) fails toi provide much of what makes those Vance books enjoyable: a charming writing style, an interesting point of view, some laughs, and/or a wacky or otherwise interesting character.  Also, Vance’s books are pretty economical; Lord Valentine’s Castle seems to go on forever, and there is never any kind of twist or surprise.  Silverberg also does his thing in which a character achieves an altered state of consciousness and so Silverberg can write a surreal dream-like scene; this is the characteristic of Silverberg’s writing I like least.  In The World Inside he did it at a rock concert, in Shadrach in the Furnace he did it in a drug den, and in Lord Valentine’s Castle the guy goes into an altered state of consciousness while juggling.  These scenes always make my eyes glaze over.

I know a lot of SF fans really enjoyed Lord Valentine’s Castle, and I really wanted to enjoy it myself, but I just couldn’t do it.  Borderline thumbs down.   

Conquerors From the Darkness by Robert Silverberg

This one I remember very little about.  It was not offensively bad, but mediocre; I guess I would give it a weak recommendation.  As I recall, the Earth is ruled by aliens who have raised the seas so almost all of the planet is covered with water.  The main character brings together an army of humans and dolphin people to overthrow the aliens.   

The Secrets of Synchronicity by Jonathan Fast

I bought this one because the back cover blurb claims this book is strongly reminiscent of Heinlein’s work.  I am a sucker for advertising.  This book is a satire on our Western materialist society (I think), and strongly influenced by Vedic mythology (so it says).  The protagonist starts out enslaved in a mine.  Is it just me, or do lots of people in SF get enslaved in mines?  Thank God they always seem to escape.  I enjoyed this book, and thought Fast’s writing style pretty good, but once was enough, so it’s back to Half Price Books for this one.

I have actually found a few lines of notes I penned on Secrets of Synchronicity:

This is a decent adventure story, about a guy living in a corrupt, decadent and perverse society in an interstellar empire, who escapes slavery, participates in a safari, becomes spiritually enlightened, and becomes the leader of a prophesied rebel movement.  As it goes on Fast layers on the satire thicker and thicker, and the book becomes more and more outlandish and silly.

Fast’s author bio on the last page is also interesting: he was a child prodigy, spends several hours a day practicing yoga, and longs for a cogent universe.  Sounds good.

People interested in SF work that is influenced by non-Western religions in particular will want to check out Secrets of Synchronicity, but it’s a worthwhile read for the rest of us as well.

Chaining the Lady by Piers Anthony

I read a ton of Piers Anthony in my youth, but this is one I never got to until recently, when, in my 40s, I got curious about Anthony again.  Chaining the Lady, a space opera full of stuff about the Tarot (which I admit is ridiculous) isn’t bad, but it is way too long.  Each of several different alien races gets an adventure, but these adventures parallel each other, and so get a little repetitious.  There’s a lot of shape-shifting psychic jazz going on as the main character infiltrates the various alien races’ ships and then uses aspects of their biology and culture to get them to side with the good guys in the intergalactic war, or something.  Two hundred pages of this would have been good, 340 pages is too much.  One or two fewer alien races would have been a good idea, but the number of races is probably related somehow to the Tarot, so maybe Anthony was stuck.
The back cover blurb suggests that the book is going to be full of kinky sex, but I don’t remember any erotic sex scenes, though there is a lot about alien reproduction.  Stick with Anais Nin for the kinky sex, people.    

I can't decide if I should give this one a borderline thumbs up or a thumbs down.  It's teetering on that edge.      

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Proscription List #1: Dickson, Lymington, Smith, Chase

As all you classical scholars know, during the crisis of the late Republic, the winners of a Roman civil war would publish a list, a proscription, of all the people they wanted killed, either because those people were seen as opponents of the new regime or because the winners of the civil war wanted their money.

As someone of limited means and with limited bookshelf space, I have decided to sell eight of my SF paperbacks to Half Price Books. These are books which I will never read again; none of them have covers I am in love with, either. Today I will archive here my Amazon reviews for three of them, Dickson’s Mission to Universe, Lymington’s Ten Million Years to Friday, and Smith’s The Galaxy Primes, and a review of Chase’s The Game of Fox and Lion I found on my hard drive but which I never posted anywhere.

In the near future I will post notes as to why the other four victims are getting the axe.

Mission to Universe by Gordon R. Dickson

Gordon R. Dickson's "Mission to Universe" has a good plot, and effectively conveys to the reader a tone of tension and tragedy. The crew of Earth's first interstellar ship consists not of disciplined military men or experienced astronauts, but a bunch of civilian scientists and technicians, and their commander, a scientist himself, not only has to whip them into shape but has to learn, on the job, how to lead. Dickson's focus is on the terrible danger of their mission, to find planets suitable for colonization by the people of an Earth on the brink of nuclear war, and the tragic costs, physical and psychological, paid by the members of the crew.

Unfortunately, the novel doesn't really come alive until the last third or so. Relationships which are so important to the end of the book are barely touched on in the first half, or so it seemed to me. I also didn't care for Dickson's writing style; it reminded me of Poul Anderson's, cold and totally lacking in any kind of distinctive flavor or character. A book with the tragic tone and exciting plot of "Mission to Universe," but written by someone with a good writing style, like a Jack Vance or a Gene Wolfe, could have been a masterpiece.

"Mission to Universe" has problems, but the emotionally grueling final third makes up for them, and I feel able to recommend it to classic SF fans. 

Ten Million Years to Friday by John Lymington

Ten Million Years to Friday has a plot with much in common with an H. P. Lovecraft type story: an eccentric scientist figures out a way to look into the distant past, and discovers an incredibly ancient, incredibly large and incredibly powerful alien being lies dormant deep underground, near an abandoned mine in Cornwall. The alien is waking up, and its psychic emanations can be felt by some human beings.

To this is added the anti-military-industrial complex sensibility we have seen so often, perhaps most famously in movies like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "E.T." The reader is expected to sympathize with the peaceful alien and deplore how warlike humanity is, and the last 75 pages or so of the book are centered on the efforts of an enlightened human to protect the alien from the police and military. There is also an evil businesswoman who tries to use her sexual wiles to keep the eccentric scientist from diminishing the value of her stock in computer companies with his inventions, a strong animal rights subtext, and dismissive criticisms of Christianity.

I like Lymington's writing style, and there are some quite effective scenes, for example, when the main character is all alone in an evacuated town, with only a dog. The Cornish setting is also sort of interesting, as are some of the characters. So, I am willing to give Ten Million Years To Friday an unenthusiastic recommendation, but I cannot deny that I was much more enthusiastic during its first 100 pages, when it still seemed possible that the alien (and not humanity) was the villain, and the story generated suspense.

It is unlikely that I will seek out any more of John Lymington's work.

The Galaxy Primes by E. E. Smith  

Edward E. Smith's Galaxy Primes is farcically bad, like a parody of later Heinlein. I recall enjoying elements of E.E. Smith's Lensman series, as well as his Skylark series, but this is a disaster that readers should avoid.

The two smartest and best-looking men, and the two smartest and best-looking women, all four of them super powerful psychics, go on a journey in the first star ship. Sounds like the set up for a great adventure tale, but it is not. For one thing, Smith spends a lot of time describing the boring relationships between crew members via stretches of dialogue that consist of boring arguments and bizarre compliments ("I think you are the greatest psychic in all the universe!") Even worse, every planet the ship goes to is an Earth-like planet inhabited by humans with a society almost identical to that of 20th century Earth, so Smith can engage in some very weak satire and boring utopianism. (For example, the protagonists disarm some totalitarian countries they encounter, using telekinesis to steal their missiles and warships so the democratic countries on the planet will be safe.) There are some hostile aliens and some fights, but the fights are absolutely lacking in tension because the protagonists' psychic powers make them invincible; with a glance they can generate explosions equivalent to nuclear bombs, but without the messy radiation.

Not recommended for anyone save Smith completists. I read the 1965 Ace paperback, number 27292, with the mediocre red painting on the cover. The cover is better than the book, however hard that may be to believe. 

The Game of Fox and Lion by Robert R. Chase

Published in paperback by Del Rey in 1986, The Game of Fox and Lion is one of those novels in which the clever open-minded people outsmart the stupid bigots, presumably in hopes of eliciting cheers from the clever open-minded readers that, the author expects, make up the majority of SF readers.

Chase depicts a universe in which the numerous human colonized star systems are riven by conflict, fierce competition between business firms, between political factions, and between religious factions. Underlying all of this conflict are issues raised by genetic engineering – do people with an altered genetic makeup have the same legal and social rights as unmodified humans, and do such people have souls? War has erupted between unmodified humans and the Bestial Clans, the descendents of humans bioengineered for super strength and endurance and who look like werewolves. Only a few years before a small group of humans bioengineered to be super smart, the Multi-Neural Capacitants, tried to launch a revolution that would have put them in charge of all humanity.

The plot of The Game of Fox and Lion concerns two men, Chiang, the head of a new business firm that is challenging the hegemony of the old firms, and Renard, the last of the Multi-Neural Capacitants, who since the abortive revolution has been living a peaceful life as the monk Brother Benedict, but now is enlisted by Chiang to help him defeat his business and political rivals and end the war between unmodified humans and the Bestials. There are some space battles, but mostly the book consists of chatty scenes in which Chiang, Renard, or their supporters outwit the heads of religious factions, legislatures, trade unions, robber baron families, etc., or discuss philosophical points. Lots of slippery business deals, legal maneuvers, peace negotiations, that sort of thing.

Chase’s writing style is bland, and there is little human interest in the book, the characters and their relationships striking no chords with the reader. And because we know the geniuses will win and because we already agree with the novel’s “message,” there is no suspense or tension in the plot. The Game of Fox and Lion is not painful, but it is not memorable either, and I cannot recommend it.