Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Satan's World by Poul Anderson

"You're better off without a lord," said Falkayn.  "Every human being is."

Over a year ago, in the 1964 collection Trader to the Stars, we met Nicholas van Rijn, Poul Anderson's hairy and obese space merchant, the head of Solar Spice & Liquors Company.  In The Trouble Twisters we were introduced to some of Van Rijn's employees, the multi-racial explorer team consisting of handsome human aristocrat David Falkayn, acid-tongued little cat-monkey Chee, and hulking alligator-faced centauroid Buddhist Adzel.  These four heroes of entrepreneurial capitalism get involved in a major interstellar crisis in Satan's World, a 1968 novel first serialized in Analog.  I read the 1977 Berkley Medallion paperback with the pleasant but generic cover by Rick Sternbach and the misspelling of Falkayn's name on the back cover.

Satan's World is unabashed libertarian hard science fiction: there is lots of chemistry, astronomy, and biology; there are lots of force fields, computers, robots, space warships, ray guns, nuclear bombs and brain-scrubbing and -washing techniques; there are innumerable intelligent alien species; and our heroes are businesspeople who love to smoke, drink and make a profit, and who have to outwit interfering government bureaucrats at every turn.

Our adventure starts off on Earth and Luna, at the heart of the Commonwealth. Falkayn is consulting with Serendipity, Inc., the leading clearinghouse of information in the Commonwealth, thanks to their (mysteriously acquired) computers, the best in the human-inhabited sector of the galaxy.  Pooling their information, Falkayn and the Serendipity people discover the location of a very valuable rogue planet. Unfortunately, Serendipity, Inc. is a deep cover spy operation of the ruthless imperialistic slaver aliens known as the Shenna!  The Serendipity staff, victims of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, send a ship to alert their masters about the rogue planet, and hold Falkayn captive--that is until Adzel, Chee and Van Rijn launch a commando raid and liberate him from Serendipity's fortified moon base.  While Van Rijn and Adzel deal with meddling Earth and Lunar bureaucrats (it turns out those government busybodies frown on private commando raids) Falkayn and Chee blast off for the rogue planet, racing to get their before the Shenna do.

This planet, which Falkayn dubs "Satan" has been passing through interstellar space for eons, just a big frozen rock.  It is currently approaching a spectacularly huge and bright star, and the radiation from the star is thawing the planet, leading to all kinds of dramatic storms and volcanic activity.  Anderson spends a few pages explaining the physics and economics behind how Solar Spice & Liquors Company can make a pile of money by setting up factories on this planet--the same science means that if the Shenna get their hands on Satan they can build a super war fleet that can threaten the Commonwealth.  A Shenna flotilla shows up shortly after our heroes arrive; can Falkayn and Chee escape to warn the Commonwealth before it is too late?


There follows a series of naval battles, gun fights, tense negotiations, people getting captured, people escaping captivity, etc.  (And plenty of science lectures.)  Van Rijn, Falkayn, Chee and Adzel all have to make tough decisions and run risks to preserve peace and freedom.  In the end, the Shenna are pacified (with no help from the Commonwealth government) and integrated into the Commonwealth economy, and Van Rijn and associates make a pretty penny!  A triumph for the bourgeoise!

Satan's World is more streamlined and faster-paced than Anderson's 1978 novel, The Avatar, with fewer characters and briefer descriptions, which I appreciated.  Of course I love all the traditional SF elements Anderson packs into the book--the anti-grav belts, the spherical space battleships bristling with energy cannons and missile launchers, the robots and space suits, et al--and I like the plot.  Anderson's style is not great, but Vin Rijn's many malapropisms, and Anderson's occasional odd literary references that sent me to google and Wikipedia (e.g., an oblique reference to the work of Leslie Charteris, whom I have never read) are entertaining.  Satan's World is a lot of fun.

In addition to the pervasive "business is more efficient and just than government" theme, there are a few elements which may irk all you social justice types out there. There is a lot of biological determinism; the behavior and social structure of each of numerous intelligent species is explained by the environment in which they evolved. The Shenna exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism, with the females basically stupid and useless.  Van Rijn and Falkayn exhibit a sort of cavalier attitude towards women, and while the alien female Chee does more shooting and killing than anybody, the principal human females in the story are all manipulative spies.

Several editions of Satan's World bear the Frederick Pohl blurb "A rattling good space story."  I tend to think of Pohl as some kind of commie, but he always gives those iconic anti-socialist SF writers, Heinlein and Anderson, a fair shake, and I think his five-word assessment hits it on the nose; Satan's World is a fun space adventure that effectively employs a battery of well-worn and well-loved SF tropes.

Recommended.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Two early '80s fairy tales by Tanith Lee: "Wolfland" & "Paid Piper"

Yesterday I talked your ear off about two Tanith Lee stories from the late 1970s, tales full of odd sex, ambiguous morality and references to Christianity.  Here comes round two, set in the early 1980s!  I read "Wolfland" and "Paid Piper" in two issues from the stack of copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I got last year at the Des Moines flea market.  Both pieces are reworkings of traditional fairy tales.

"Wolfland" (1980)

When I realized that "Wolfland," which I read in the October 1980 issue of F&SF, was a version of "Little Red Riding Hood" I put the magazine down and read the Wikipedia article on the fairy tale as well as various translations of the versions of the story by Frenchman Charles Perrault and Germans Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm at Gutenberg.org.

"Wolfland" was selected for DAW's Year's Best Fantasy Stories 7, edited by Arthur Saha, and appeared in Lee's own Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer) as well as fairy tale scholar Jack Zipe's Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England.

Sixteen-year-old Lisel is a pretty French girl enjoying the social life of the city, going to balls and breaking hearts.  Then comes a summons from her maternal grandmother, known as "The Matriarch Anna," who lives in a chateau in the woods.  Grandma is so rich that Lisel cannot refuse the invite--she doesn't want to risk losing that sweet inheritance!

Lee packs this novelet with great images.  Very reminiscent of that early scene in Dracula, Lisel is picked up by a carriage late at night in the woods, and the carriage is escorted by dozens of wolves on its way to the chateau.  Her grandmother has a worshipful servant, a misshapen dwarf with an angelic face who goes by the name of "Beautiful."  Grandma tells Lisel the story of how Grandpa, long dead, was a sadist who beat and whipped her for pleasure and almost killed Lisel's mother.  For aid, Grandma turned to the wolf goddess of the north!  The chateau lies in an area imbued with wolf-magic, and when Grandma ate certain yellow flowers on the night of the full moon she became a werewolf and achieved her revenge on Grandpa!

Victoria Poyser's depiction of Matriarch Anna
on that fateful night
Lee lays a little Lamarkism on us--Lisel carries dormant in her blood the ability to become a werewolf herself, she need only eat some of those flowers.  What's that?  That tart yellow wine she has been drinking while she listened to Grandma's wacky story is made from those flowers?  I guess Lisel doesn't get any choice in the matter!

Grandma explains that she fears going to Hell for her lycanthropic ways, but knows the wolf goddess will protect her soul after she dies if offered a replacement. Lisel is that replacement--she won't be spending her evenings at city balls anymore, but in the black woods, eating raw meat!

"Wolfland" is a pretty good horror story with many striking images, feminist overtones ("The marriage vow is a chain that may not be broken..." says Grandma, "No law supports a wife.  I could only kill him....") and the outre erotic notes we often find in Lee's work (Lisel, a virgin, worries about being raped by coachmen and considers surrendering her body to "a hairy peasant" if he will help her escape, and the possibility is raised that Grandma took pleasure in the rough treatment meted out to her by her brutal husband--she certainly has a perverse sado-masochistic relationship with Beautiful the dwarf.)

Yesterday I complained that Lee's "Red as Blood" was distractingly similar to the original Snow White story, but I didn't feel that way about "Wolfland."  The story departs widely from the originals I read, and Lee spends quite a bit of time setting up distinct characters and moods in this considerably longer story.

I liked it.

"Paid Piper" (1981)      

In preparation for reading this caper, I read the Wikipedia page on the Pied Piper of Hamelin and reread Robert Browning's 1840s poem of that name. "Paid Piper" first appeared in the July 1981 issue of F&SF, and would later be included in the Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer) collection.

The people of the village of Lime Tree worship the Rat God known as Ruar.  Ruar makes sure no vermin eat their crops (or so the villagers believe), so the villagers are prosperous  Every year there is a parade in which the priests carry the statue of the Rat God through every street in town, all the villagers trouping behind.  The Pied Piper, a handsome young man with old eyes, arrives on the day of the celebration, and offers his services.  He walks ahead of the procession, playing the best music anyone has ever heard, music that makes everybody happy.  At the end of the parade the leaders of the village offer the Piper 150 gold coins, the finest horse in the stables, and other treasures as payment for his fine performance.

The Piper, however, refuses this kind of payment.  Instead, he demands that the villagers of Lime Tree cease worshipping the Rat God and instead worship him.  The Pied Piper is a god, but he is in danger of dying if nobody worships him.  He tells the villagers that they can be happy and dance every day if they abandon Ruar and worship him.  When the people object that they have to work and make money, the Piper points out that the flowers and the stars don't make money, and lead beautiful lives.  (Presumably this is meant to remind the reader of "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.")  The people of Lime Tree don't find this logic any more convincing than I do, and drive the Piper out of town. The Piper vows revenge.

No live children are born in Lime Tree after the Piper leaves, and within a few years the trees die and the river silts up.  The town is devastated because it chose the god of money over the god of love.

"Paid Piper" is, apparently, an attack on middle-class values and capitalism.  The story's main character is Cleci, a teenaged girl, the daughter of a washerwoman, and Lee gives several examples of how she suffers from class snobbery and the dreaded income inequality.  The daughters of middle-class people (like the baker and miller) are mean to Cleci and have nicer clothes, rich people have pet white rats but poor Cleci can't afford to buy one, positions in the priesthood go only to wealthier villagers, etc. (When the piper is playing, during the parade, the middle-class girls are nice to Cleci, even giving her a ribbon to wear.)

When Lime Tree goes down the tubes and her mother dies from overwork, Cleci, whom the Pied Piper exempted from his curse, leaves, but not before setting up a shrine to the Piper.  She returns periodically to the shrine, and teaches her children to worship the Piper, so that he might live on.  Cleci feels pity for the Piper, knowing that if the god of love was acting like the god of being-a-jerk when he threatened and then ruined the villagers, it was only because a god reflects the values of the mortals who created him, and the members of the human race have become stupid and cruel because of their lust for money.

The politics and economics of this story made me groan.  In fact, the comparison of middle-class people to rats reminded me of The Eternal Jew, the famous Nazi propaganda movie.  Of course, I doubt The Eternal Jew ever entered Lee's head while writing "Paid Piper," and I expect few readers would think of it either, and instead simply enjoy seeing the bourgeoisie get it in the neck ("toppled" is the word that is coming to mind today for some reason) like they do in so much fiction and public discourse, but it disturbed me a little.

Beyond the politics, I think "Paid Piper" is inferior to the other three fairy-tale style stories of Lee's I read last week.  While it is well-constructed and well-written, "The Paid Piper" lacks any of the ingredients, like emotional power, moral ambiguity, surprises and vivid imagery, that made the "The Demoness," "Red as Blood," and "Wolfland" stand out.  I'm giving "Paid Piper" a marginally positive grade, though maybe people who feel our society is too materialistic and think that "all you need is love" (and that materialistic women deserve to be sterilized) will appreciate it.

************

There's lots more Tanith Lee and fantasy in my future, but next up will be a change of pace as I head off into space with Poul Anderson, destination: Satan's World.

Two late '70s Tanith Lee stories: "The Demoness" & "Red as Blood"

Let's explore further the prodigious oeuvre of award-winning British speculative fiction writer Tanith Lee.  These two stories are from copies of Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories that I picked up outside of Nashville in December of last year. Both tales play with our expectations about who is good and who is evil, and challenge us to decide which characters (if any) deserve our sympathy.

"The Demoness" (1976)

In a tower by the sea lives a pale woman with no memories.  Men who arrive at the tower find her irresistible, but when they possess her she absorbs their minds and drains their will to live.  One day a hero comes to the tower; he has the fortitude to resist her charms, and flees.  The vampire woman is stricken with a hopeless love for the only man to resist her, and pursues him across the country.  At the end of the story Lee asks us to pity the demoness, who will live forever but never satisfy her desire for the hero.  

A melodramatic (gothic, perhaps) story about how sexual desire can make men lose their minds and how women most desire the men who most resist them; a dark fairy tale that serves as an allegory of how love can be a curse that ruins our lives, and more broadly about how our emotions, not logic or morality, drive us.  Full of stark images and passages that will catch the attention of gender studies students.  I liked it a lot.

"The Demoness" first appeared in Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2 and would later be chosen by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for inclusion in the Fantasy Hall of Fame (1998) alongside such classics as Ray Bradbury's "Small Assassin" and Fritz Leiber's "Bazaar of the Bizarre."

My man tarbandu read every story in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2 recently; check out his assessment here.

"Red as Blood" (1979)

This story first appeared in the July '79 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; I read it in the sixth volume of Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories, which has a provocative sex-and-violence cover by Josh Kirby.  As with so many representations of women in speculative fiction, the viewer wonders if this is an empowering vision of a woman ("This woman doesn't need a man to protect her!") or an exploitative one ("Look, boobs!")

"Red as Blood" was well-received and has been widely anthologized, appearing in books like The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy By Women, Vampires: The Greatest Stories, and The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and serves as the title story of Lee's collection Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer).

"Red as Blood" is a version of the old story of Snow White.  I have to admit that until this week I had not read the "original" Grimm version of the tale or seen the Disney movie (or any of the recent movies featuring Snow White, for that matter.)  As a kid I found Disney feature films to be a total drag, and ignored them; the first Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, which I saw in the theatre, and the old Godzilla and King Kong movies I saw occasionally on TV, along with the Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched every day, bred in me an impatience for any moving picture which was not nonstop violence.  For example, I found Star Trek to be an absolute bore; I always groaned when the crew's phasers failed to have any effect on a foe, as they always seemed to do--I wanted to watch the kind of endless firefights and chases that Luke and Indy were always having on the Death Star and in the desert, killing dozens of people singlehandedly with zero moral considerations, not an hour of chatter.

(My cultural education is full of lacunae like this--for example, I had never seen Leave it to Beaver until I was in my 40s!)

Anyway, when I realized "Red as Blood" was a take on this old piece of German folklore, I read the Grimm version of "Snow White" ( trans. Margaret Hunt) at Gutenberg.org, as well as the Wikipedia pages about the story and about the Disney film.

As in the traditional story, in "Red as Blood" we have a Queen (called "The Witch Queen") with magic powers who has an adversarial relationship with her lovely stepdaughter.  But instead of being a naive goody goody, the stepdaughter, called "Bianca" and fourteen years of age at the start of the tale, is a vampire like her biological mother before her.  (Lee doesn't use the word "vampire," but all the clues are there.)  Bianca has her own magic powers--she animates seven "stunted black trees" to be her guards, for example.  Despite her moniker, the Witch Queen is a Christian who would like to have Bianca confirmed in the church and wear a crucifix; Bianca refuses.

Michael Whelan's rendition of seductive
Bianca and the disguised Witch Queen
The Queen sends the huntsman to deal with Bianca, but after he pulls his knife Bianca transforms into a simulacrum of the Queen and seduces, then kills, him.  Then the Queen summons Satan himself for aid! Lee suggests that Satan is not such a bad sort, but God's left hand man, second only to Jesus, who we are told is Satan's brother.

With a flash of lightning Lucifer disguises the Queen as a hideous old hag.  The Queen, incognito, feeds Bianca a magic apple, which includes a piece of the Eucharist--this paralyzes Bianca, and the seven trees put her in a coffin.  A Prince comes by; the Prince has a scar on his wrist, and apparently is Christ himself.  The piece of the Eucharist is dislodged from Bianca's throat, awakening her.  The Prince transforms Bianca into a white dove, and Bianca, bidden to "Begin again" by the Prince (of Peace), flies to the Queen's chamber, transforms back into a girl, but a girl of seven years.  No longer a vampire, she accepts the crucifix the Queen hangs around her neck.

In its somewhat mysterious use of Christian elements and ambiguity over who is good and who is evil, "Red as Blood" reminded me of Lee's "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn," and "Where All Things Perish."

Technically, this is a good story, well-written, economical, and full of surprises, but I couldn't get emotionally invested in it because I couldn't forget it was a story long enough to care about the characters or plot.  Knowing it was a take on the tale of Snow White, instead of "getting lost in the story" I was busy inspecting all the nuts and bolts, trying to figure out what Lee was up to.  Preoccupied with watching the man behind the curtain working the levers, the story didn't live and breathe for me, but it is certainly a curious, compelling, exercise.

****************

"The Demoness" was very effective as a horror-fantasy story, and "Red as Blood" was an interesting reimagining of a famous fairy tale, so thumbs up for both.  In our next episode I'll look at two more of Lee's twisted versions of traditional fairy tales.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Don't Bite the Sun by Tanith Lee

A body change seemed to be in order, and a sex change as well.

Above the bikini babe on my copy of DAW UE1486, Don't Bite the Sun, is Marion Zimmer Bradley's assessment of this 1976 novel by Tanith Lee: "Probably the finest book you have ever published."  Talk about effusive praise!  I've never read any fiction by Bradley (check out tarbandu's skeptical take here, here, here, and here), and Bradley seems to have been a dangerous fiend who belonged in a prison, but I suppose I should be thankful for her championing of Lee, of whom I am a big fan.

On the back of the book are similarly ecstatic blurbs from a student newspaper and something called "Tangent."  Google reveals many periodicals have been named "Tangent" or "Tangents," ranging from a fashion magazine to a poetry journal to a magazine dealing with gay issues.  The Tangent in question is probably an SF fanzine, some fun 1975 and 1976 cover images of which I found on ebay.

So, does Don't Bite the Sun deserve this praise?  On the weekend I read the 158-page novel in an effort to find out.

Don't Bite the Sun is set in the super high tech future, when mankind has conquered distance, disease and death, on a desert planet where people, descendents of long-forgotten human colonists, live in domed cities, sheltered from sandstorms, volcanic eruptions and aggressive semi-intelligent natives.   Robots and computers do all the work and make all the decisions, so the humans spend all their time entertaining themselves with drugs, sex orgies, and interactive, pre-scripted dreams.

An earlier edition with a considerably
more appropriate cover illustration
As in what is perhaps Lee's most famous work, The Silver Metal Lover, our first person narrator is an emotional teen-age girl.  She lives in domed city Four BEE and is a "jang."  Jangs are the youth, those who have graduated from hypno-school but not yet joined the ranks of "Older People." Jangs are encouraged to act irresponsibly and explore the possibilities of life, and one of the questions the novel seems to ask is: are there any real responsibilities and real possibilities in a world of perfect safety run flawlessly by machines?

Jangs often change their bodies for cosmetic reasons, or based on a whim, and when designing a new body can not merely determine things like height, weight, and sex, but add additional eyes, wings, antenna, tentacles, even multiple heads.  The machines can also bring back to life those killed in accidents or violence, and so Jangs will take terrible risks for fun, or simply commit suicide when moody.  Our narrator regularly drowns herself when she is depressed, and has a friend who has died crashing his airplane into the same building dozens of times.

The narrator does not find satisfaction in the jang lifestyle, and applies for permission to become an "older person" early.  When, after a battery of psychological tests, she is denied permission by the robots, she tries to find meaning in work or art, but there is no work to do, and it turns out that even artists rely on robots to create their art for them.  Her next idea is to have a child and become a parent, and after donating an egg she leaves Four BEE, via mass transit, to seek an acceptable mate in other domed cities, Four BAA and Four BOO.  (I'm guessing the names of the cities are Lee's jocular references to hive insects; sheep, which are proverbially mindless followers; and maybe ghosts.)

Our narrator fails to find a partner she feels comfortable having a child with, and, at Four BOO, she changes her sex.  "He" returns to Four BEE to try to donate sperm and be both father and mother of a child, but this does not work.  "You have killed your child," the robots tell the narrator, throwing her into despair and leading to her latest suicide by drowning.

Unlike most people on the planet, the narrator found the deserts between the domed cities she saw through the windows of the "sand ship" fascinating, and so, back in a female body, she jumps at a chance to join an archaeological dig at a ruin out in the barren waste.  On this adventure, the climax of the novel, she gets lost in a sandstorm, endures real danger and witnesses real rain and real flowers blooming, interacts with real animals that were not gestated in a test tube, and suffers a real loss when a pet of hers is killed.

In the final pages of the book Lee gives us some ideas of what important things are missing from this world where there is no danger, no toil, and few restrictions on sensual pleasure.  The narrator utters the phrase, "Oh God," before fainting, even though she and her friends have no idea what the word "God" means.  One of the narrator's male friends who has chosen to wear a hideous monster body wants to marry her, and the narrator agrees, on the condition that he get a new, attractive body.  But the friend insists that he wants her to love his inner self, not the changeable surface, and the marriage does not occur. The narrator's aviator friend, who dies in scores of suicidal plane crashes, reveals that he kills himself this way because it is painful, because "pain is a reality."

Lee seems to suggest that, while 20th century people suffered all sorts of dangers and restrictions, all manner of fear and bigotry, their lives had meaning thanks to things like love and religion (and work and art), things almost unknown in Four BEE.  Also, that a life divorced from risk, from death, is also divorced from the natural world and reality.  

So, why did Marion Zimmer Bradley and the others who provided blurbs on my copy think Don't Bite the Sun was so singular, so special?  This is obviously a more philosophical and unconventional book than the numerous sword and sorcery capers and space operas put out by DAW; maybe we should see it as "New Wave."  In addition, Don't Bite the Sun is largely about rules, and rule breakers, something I suspect appealed to Bradley.  Bradley, a lesbian who married men, who seems to have had contempt for taboos and laws against incest and pedophila and edited a book about pederasty, a feminist who abandoned Christianity for paganism and who wrote a version of Arthurian myth focusing on women instead of men, appears to have been the kind of person who didn't take rules very seriously, or only took them seriously when she was overturning or undermining them.  Don't Bite the Sun novel shows a world in which almost every custom or law of middle-class 20th century society has been overturned by technology, and features a protagonist who doesn't just accept the state of the world she was born into, which in so many ways seems like a 1970s counterculture vision of utopia, but rebels against it, trying to escape its restrictions and break out of its own traditions and rules.

Cleverly, and satisfyingly, Don't Bite the Sun exhibits a mature and thoughtful attitude about rebellion and rule breakers.  The novel celebrates those who break the rules, but also critiques them, depicting the price of rebellion and suggesting that changing the rules can have negative as well as positive consequences.  "DO NOT BITE THE SUN, TRAVELER, YOU WILL BURN YOUR MOUTH" reads an inscription on an ancient artifact the characters discover on their archaeological dig, and our narrator comes to interpret it as a warning that breaking the rules can have painful consequences ("The sun is the Ordained Way of living... I'd bitten ceaselessly and hopelessly, and I was burned....")  The narrator broke the rules and has suffered, and perhaps her society, by conquering death, nature and scarcity, has also broken rules and thus suffered the loss of the comforts and pleasures of love, work, religion, and the natural world.

Don't Bite the Sun is thought-provoking, and I found the tragic events of the last third or so of the book to be emotionally affecting.  It is not a horror story or a sword and sorcery adventure, like so much of Lee's work, and it isn't as well-plotted a human drama as The Silver Metal Lover, but it does address Lee's oft-addressed themes of decadence and unconventional sexual relationships, and I think it will appeal to philosophically-minded SF fans.   I enjoyed it, and I'm quite curious about the sequel, Drinking Sapphire Wine, which I will pick up as soon as I encounter it in my travels. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

With a Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans

He had always intended to live a fat and lazy life on his inheritance, whether his father's gold or his master's spells; he was forced to admit to himself that he barely knew how to hold a hammer.

Back in December I wrote a little about Lawrence Watt-Evans and read The Misenchanted Sword, which I liked.  In Nashville on my holiday travels I found a cache of Watt-Evans books and brought them back to my MidWest headquarters. This week I read the second book in Watt-Evans's Ethshar series, 1987's With a Single Spell, and quite enjoyed it.

With a Single Spell takes place in the same world as The Misenchanted Sword, but centuries later.  Events from The Misenchanted Sword are coyly hinted at, which will amuse readers of that book, and similar spells and magical devices turn up, but this novel stands on its own; I think it would be fine to read With a Single Spell without having read The Misenchanted Sword first.

With a Single Spell is a light-hearted picaresque.  I tend to dislike farces and fiction full of broad jokes, and I really appreciate how Watt-Evans is able to include humor in this adventure novel without rendering the milieu or the characters ridiculous.  Watt-Evans's fantasy world and its denizens are as "believable" as those in canonical fantasies like Tolkien's, Howard's or Moorcock's, but whereas those fantasies can be portentous and heavy and follow tragic/heroic leaders as empires, societies and entire dimensions decay and collapse, Watt-Evans keeps the scale a little lower and the tone considerably lighter.

Tobas is a teenager with bad luck growing up in a little coastal town that serves as a base for pirates (Tobas and everybody in the town insist their economy relies not on piracy but on "privateering.")  Tobas's parents are already dead (his father was a pirate killed in battle while pursuing his trade) when his master, an aged wizard, passes away in his sleep.  Tobas is alone in the world, his apprenticeship cut short--he has only learned one minor spell!  So, he leaves his little home to seek his fortune, stealing and begging to survive (one of his first acts, sort of reliving his father's career, is to steal a boat from innocent people), sailing the ocean, visiting huge cities, exploring wilderness and ruins, undertaking a dangerous quest and even being transported to a bizarre netherworld.  He makes friends, falls in love, gains skill, knowledge, riches and a family, and as the book ends we are confident that he lives happily ever after, and has paid restitution for his own misdeeds, and maybe for his father's as well.
    
I compared The Misenchanted Sword to a Heinlein juvenile, and I think With a Single Spell also bears such a comparison.  Tobas, a young man, leaves his little village and receives an education out in the big dangerous world, facing and overcoming challenges and finding a role as a good and productive person.  Another similarity with Heinlein's work can be seen in the slightly unconventional sexual components of the book; in the world of Ethshar it is acceptable for a man to have multiple wives, and Tobas ends up marrying not one but two beautiful and intelligent women, one a talented witch who is over four hundred years old (she enjoys an eternal youth spell), the other a well-educated princess.

Watt-Evans's setting, with its many cities and kingdoms, its various schools of magic and numerous magic items and fantastical creatures, is vivid and fun, and his pacing and tone are even and comfortable.  With a Single Spell is not deep or challenging, and it doesn't have much to say about the kind of issues that books I talk about on this blog often do, like the role of the state, religion, gender roles, the Cold War, or imperialism, but it is a very enjoyable entertainment, a well-crafted wish-fulfillment fantasy about a small town boy making good in a world of dragons, pirates, and wizards.  I recommend it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Man of Earth by Algis Budrys

Sibley's face burned.  But soon, he knew, with a sudden joy, that would never happen again.  Soon he would be a man.

The central ideas behind Algis Budrys's famous Rogue Moon (lunar death maze, teleportation, the question of what constitutes a man) are great, but as I wrote back in 2007 the execution did not impress me.  It has taken me almost eight years to give another Budrys novel a chance, but this week I read Man of Earth, a 1958 paperback from Ballantine (number 243) which literally fell to pieces as I read it, and I am glad I did.

An earlier version of Man of Earth appeared in Satellite Science Fiction.  The isfdb is leading me to believe that Man of Earth has been published in physical book form in English only once, but that our friends in Italy have put out three different editions, in '62, '72 and '80.  Here is my chance to gauge the taste of the Italian SF community; maybe they appreciate something about Man of Earth that American SF fans missed!

Man of Earth starts out like one of those postwar books or movies about how stressful and corrupt the modern business world is and how our consumer society is devouring our souls.  It's New York, the year 2197!  Allen Sibley is a genius broker who can tell instinctively what stocks to buy and sell, and his firm is one of the most successful in the finance game!  But he feels like something is missing in his life: he has no family or friends; he is a bust with women; he recalls how he used to make model airplanes as a child and, now in his late forties, wishes he could leave his mark on the world with his hands, not staring at a screen and buying and selling shares.  He is naturally shy and nervous, and suffers terrific anxiety because he knows his whole life can collapse all around him if government regulators or business rivals expose some of the corners he's cut and shady deals he's made.  Then a guy from the mysterious firm of Doncaster Industrial Linens tells him our whole society is prone to collapse because we are using too many resources and soon Mother Earth will run out!

When it looks like Uncle Sam is about to fall on Sibley like a ton of bricks he hires the services of the secretive Doncaster corporation.  In exchange for over 90% of his assets the Doncaster people replace Sibley's eyes and skin so he is no longer identifiable, tinker with his hormones and glands so he will be strong and brave instead of weak and cowardly, provide him forged papers (Sibley is now "John L. Sullivan," a joke I would never have got without google), and then ship him off to the colony on Pluto to start a new life!  Tricky, tricky--until he woke up on the spaceship, Sibley thought he was going to start his new life in the Big Apple, not that barren rock beyond Uranus!

"Sullivan" lands on Pluto 47 pages into the 144 page novel.  Man of Earth is one of those SF stories in which people can walk around on Pluto and breathe the air just fine; there are H2O rivers and the soil can support Earth plants. The Pluto colony has about 20,000 inhabitants, and the place is run along totalitarian lines, with the government assigning people jobs.  Because he doesn't want to blow his cover by admitting he is a business and math whiz Sullivan tells them he has no skills and so they stick him in the army. Why does Pluto need an army?  The people of Pluto feel like the Earth has abandoned them, and the reader is lead to suspect that the Pluto army is going to conquer the Earth Franco-style!  

Sullivan tries to be a good soldier, and with his superior physique and intelligence he soon becomes the best private in the Plutonian army.  He also tries to make friends among his fellow enlisted men, but he has no social skills and is taken advantage of by a conniving bully, leaving him alienated from his comrades.

In the last pages of the book Budrys ties the whole plot together.  Doncaster gave the lonely Sibley a superior body to match his superior mind and sent him to Pluto for military training in order to groom him to be the leader of the first interstellar colonization effort!  Pluto is secretly run by Doncaster, and the army is not going to attack Earth; just about everybody on the planet is going to be leaving the solar system to found a galactic empire, and Sibley/Sullivan is going to be in charge of this heroic adventure!

Man of Earth is pretty good; I certainly liked it more than Rogue Moon.  The style was good, the plot included surprises, the book felt streamlined, and it addresses interesting issues.

While Man of Earth includes all kinds of traditional SF elements (futuristic gadgets like space ships, mass-marketed jet packs for commuters, and pocket typewriters; a morally ambiguous and far-reaching conspiracy; and a sense-of-wonder/paradigm-shift ending) most of the text, and most of the energy, of the novel is devoted to the main character's psychology and relationships, and I think Budrys did a good job with this material. Sibley/Sullivan is a sympathetic and interesting character, and the early scenes which show him as a bundle of nerves, and then the scenes on Pluto, where he blunderingly tries to win friends and earn respect among the working class volunteer soldiers and lower class conscripts, are effective.

Like Rogue Moon, Man of Earth is largely about what it means to be a man.  Sibley wants to be a man, and, thinks he has failed to be one as a weak, cowardly, and lonely, though highly successful, broker.  As Sullivan, the strong and courageous soldier, he tries his damnedest to be a man, but it is not easy.  His life in the Pluto army is as lonely as his life back on Wall Street, and even though he is now too tough to be intimidated by people, he is vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous.

That Sibley/Sullivan is selected to be the leader of the greatest adventure in human history suggests that Budrys thinks that a "real" man is doomed to loneliness, to be (to quote Virgil) "a man apart."  I think Budrys's praise of L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout, a novel about a tough, self-sacrificing, autocratic leader in a postapocalyptic world, is significant here.  Aeneas-like figures seem to be close to Budrys's heart, and he appears to share with Hubbard a level of skepticism about our middle-class democratic and capitalistic institutions.

I'm happy to recommend Man of Earth, an economical, entertaining novel which has a good balance of human drama and SF elements.  With its preoccupation with manhood and manliness, it might be an especially interesting read for someone interested in gender roles in SF.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Trees of Zharka by Nancy Mackenroth

"The people of Zharka are children of sin!  Long ago they so offended God that He has disowned us, and it is only by constant humility and submission, and veneration of His truly great works, that we can ever win back his favor."
I've had Nancy Mackenroth's 1975 novel The Trees of Zharka on my shelf for years and years.  I can't remember where, or when, or even why I bought it. Maybe I purchased it during a period when I was suffering a guilt trip over the fact that I so rarely read female authors, and this was the book by a woman in the used bookstore's SF section that looked least like a feminist utopia and most like it might be some kind of adventure. (Maybe it was the book by a woman that looked the shortest--the typeface on this thing is pretty huge, like something you'd see in a kid's book.)  Maybe the Jack Gaughan cover won me over.  Maybe it brought to mind fond memories of the Flame Trees of Thika TV show I watched as a kid. Maybe I was just intrigued by an author I had never heard of before.

Anyway, after many years of neglecting it, last weekend I decided to finally read The Trees of Zharka.  This is the only novel by Mackenroth listed on isfdb, and it apparently was only printed once, which is not exactly promising.  The people at Popular Library, however, assure me Mackenroth is one of the world's greatest authors, and I'm sure they wouldn't lie!

The people of planet Zharka live a grim quasi-medieval lifestyle, most of them farming by hand while a priesthood of a few hundred devote themselves to worshipping a Sacred Grove of seventy-nine trees.  Centuries ago their ancestors landed on Zharka and committed some unspecified "Great Sin," and ever since the colonists have been doing penance, the Zharkan clergy enforcing a regime of social humility and economic sterility.  Dancing and singing are forbidden, as is the development of even the most rudimentary technological improvements to increase productivity.


If we don't already have enough reasons to dislike these priests, Mackenroth makes clear that they are a bunch of sexists (women are not allowed to be priests and are forbidden entry to the Sacred Grove) and parasites who tax the farmers into misery.

Young clergyman and orphan Toma Alexan has a naturally sunny disposition and is skeptical about the Great Sin, and wonders why man, with his freedom and intelligence, should have to worship a bunch of static mindless trees.  Soon after graduating from the novitiate and attaining the rank of priest, Toma (or "Doubting Toma," as I like to call him) endeavors to learn the truth about the Great Sin, an investigation fraught with peril as it is conducted under the watchful eye of the High Priest, who is ever vigilant for heresy and blasphemy.

I'm happy to report that The Trees of Zharka is pretty good.  The style is straightforward and smooth, and the tale moves along briskly for 80 or 90% of its length, until we reach the climax.  The characters are all believable and interesting; the developing relationships between Toma and two young people who share Toma's cheerful attitude about life and his skepticism of the Zharkan religion, Toma's novice and this boy's pretty older sister, are pleasant to follow.

On page 116 of the 192-page book, as any reader who has surveyed the back cover has been expecting, the boy and Toma's love interest are both sentenced to death. Toma breaks them out of jail and leads them to the ruins of the first human settlement on Zharka.

Many Zharkans have psychic powers, what they call "gifts," and these play an important role in the story.  Toma can detect the psychic residue of emotions adhering to an area (when he enters a room he can tell who was there last and if they were happy, sad, angry, etc.), and he uses this power, and a diary he finds in the ruins, to figure out the secret of Zharka's history and the truth about the Great Sin. The Great Sin is racism!

Back in 2059 the Earth was overcrowded, which exacerbated racial tensions.  High-minded colonists of all races came to Zharka in their space ship, Equality, to build an egalitarian society.  All went well for ten years, until the colonists ran out of Earth booze.  At the big ten-year anniversary shindig the colonists tried out the wine they had made from Zharkan grapes, but it was too strong for them, and a tremendous race riot erupted.  (I guess it's like "Don't mention the war;" the thing you are trying hardest not to think of is the thing in the very front of your mind, looking for a chance to jump out.)

Of the one hundred families who landed on the planet only members of twenty-one survived the drunken imbroglio.  The survivors were so ashamed that they burned down the entire town, including all their books, computers, and machines, and moved away to live a life of penitential primitivism. In their new village they planted the Sacred Grove, one tree for each of the massacred families.  (In case you are wondering, all the survivors are of the same, unspecified, race, which is why race never comes up in the book until the end.)

Among the strengths of The Trees of Zharka are that the secret comes as a surprise, and the book isn't beating you over the head with its message from page one, instead focusing on the human stories of its characters.  On the other hand, the revelation of the secret comes out of nowhere, with zero foreshadowing, and I found it a little anticlimactic.  The way the secret is revealed to readers and the priesthood, Toma giving a long speech in a courtroom scene that takes up multiple days and more than 20 pages, is a little tedious.

On the last pages of the book it is clear that reforms are coming to Zharka.  Rather than living penitent lives in pursuit of forgiveness for an unknown crime of their ancestors, the Zharkans will try to build a society based on their forefathers' hopes and dreams of tolerance.  This means an end to sexism and the stifling of technological innovation.

I enjoyed the novel for the most part, though one could see it as slight, a fable instead of a rigorous attempt to depict a believable alien society (what the kids call "world-building") or address thorny issues like race relations and religion.  Maybe it was originally meant to be a young adult novel?

For example, there is no army or police force or knightly class, and the clerics have no weapons, so how do the relatively small numbers of scholarly priests enforce their stupid rules and exact their ruinous taxes on the farmers?  The farmers own their own land and are, presumably, physically hardy due to all that farm labor, so why don't the farmers rebel or just leave?  Also, there is the fact that Mackenroth sort of sidesteps what sometimes feels like the main issue of the book, racism, reducing the agency and responsibility of the characters by having the founders' riot result from inebriation and having only one race on the planet during the period covered by the novel.  Maybe the real main point of the novel is that you ought not let other people, including your wicked ancestors, affect your thinking and determine how you will lead your life.

So, not a rave review for The Trees of Zharka, but still a moderate recommendation.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Day by Night by Tanith Lee

"However, you know, I never trust a machine to think a thing all the way through.  How should I?  Did you hear, there's another piece to the Klave?  I mean, apart from the Subterior?  A lovely location, by all accounts, full of warmth and light and entertainment.  And princes live there.  They live in palaces.  They eat sweets and lie on silk and fight simply for pleasure.  Would you believe it?  It's so.  And that being the case, and the machines keeping it the case, us here, them there, you'll comprehend, your elegance, why I don't trust a machine always to be right."     

I've been an enthusiastic fan of Tanith Lee's work for a while, so when I saw DAW No. 408, Lee's 1980 novel Day By Night, at the Half Price Books in Omaha, I snapped it right up.  I like the cover by Don Maitz a lot--the colors, the idiosyncratic faces of the depicted man and woman, the way it combines both detailed realism and decorative symmetry.  I also really like the evocative frontispiece by Lee herself.  So, I love Day by Night as a physical artifact; does the text also deserve my adoration?

The Klave is a subterranean city on an alien planet colonized by humans so many thousands of years ago that the knowledge of how to construct and maintain the computers and robots that keep society going has, apparently, long been lost. The Klave is split into two parts, geographically and socially: in the Residencia live a small number of decadent aristocrats in those few fine homes whose technology still operates; in the Subterior toil a vast number of workers who supply the raw materials used by the ever-dwindling number of robots that keep life on the barren planet possible.

The computers make nearly all important decisions, as a minor character notes:
“We’re fashioned from our parental genes in the computers’ genetic matrixes. Our names are chosen by the computers when we’re delivered to our parents at birth. We’re raised and nursed and tutored by robots. Thereafter our security rests on mechanical diligence.”
From among the aristocrats the computers select Fabulasts, individuals with creative ability. The Fabulasts, via computer workstations, create dramas known as Fabulisms, which are somewhat analogous to TV or films, but with a powerful hypnotic component, that entertain the masses in the Subterior, mesmerizing them during their hours off. One of these Fabulists, a beautiful woman (and the subject of Lee’s woodblock-style frontispiece), Vitra of the house of Klovez, drives the plot of the novel (or so it initially appears.)

The planet into which the Klave is dug always shows the same face to its sun; the Klave lies under a barren airless waste whose sky is eternally black. The setting of Vitra’s Fabulism is the other side of the planet, which endures an endless day.  The society there, called the Yunea, is a sort of caricature or mirror image of Vitra’s own life in the Klave; the people there live on the surface, the Yunean aristocrats living in palaces and hunting mutant antelopes and lions on the sun-scorched veldt while the masses of the poor toil in "Slumopolis."  Most of Day By Night has us following the melodramatic schemes and relationships of the aristocrats in each of these two worlds, as they try to seduce, murder, and exact vengeance on each other. Throughout the novel, what goes on in the worlds of Vitra's life and Vitra's "fiction" influences what occurs in the other.

One of the most prominent of the characters in the novel is Casrus, of the aristocratic house of Klarn in the Klave, the only aristo to show any compassion for the toilers of the Subterior.  Casrus has a strained relationship with his fellow aristos, and rejects Vitra's amorous advances. When house Klovez’s technology fails, threatening to reduce Vitra and her effeminate brother Vyen to a life of penury, they are inspired by events in the Fabulism Vitra (thinks she) is writing to engineer an elaborate scheme to frame Casrus. The Klovez conspirators convince the computers that handle all law enforcement in the Klave that Casrus tried to rape Vitra, and, as damages, Vitra and Vyen are given house Klarn, with all its operational technology, so they can continue their easy, comfortable lives. As punishment, Casrus is sent into the bleak Subterior to labor.

Similarly, in Vitra's drama, an aristocratic woman of the Yunea, Vel Thaidis, is framed for a crime and sentenced to life in Slumopolis.

In the final quarter of the 300 page novel Casrus escapes the Subterior and Vel Thaidis escapes Slumopolis, and they both find their way to a complex on the planet's terminator.  There they (and we readers) learn that Vitra has not in fact conceived of the Yunea; her Fabulism is a true history of events on the sunny side of the globe, and is being transmitted to her brain, and thence to the Fabulism screens of the Subterior. The entire planet is being run by a diabolical brother and sister with god-like powers as a complex game; they have been engineering the economics, politics, and feuds on both sides of the planet, including Casrus's and Vel Thaidis's unlikely escapes and journeys to the same exact point in the twilight zone, for their own amusement.

This is a pretty cynical book.  The aristocratic and proletarian characters all conform to the worst stereotypes that a middle-class person might have about the idle nobility and the brutal undeserving poor.  Almost all the characters are radically selfish or calculatingly malicious, while those who do good deeds go unrewarded and characters who start off relatively decent are corrupted by contact with evil characters and their horrible circumstances.  Finally we learn that the entire population of the planet has no free will--they are just pawns in a game, so their lives and deeds have no moral meaning.  There are many references to religion in Day by Night, some overt (male aristocrats are said to be worshipped as gods by the women they choose from among the poor to be their mistresses, and the brother and sister who run the planet are called "gods") and others sly (the complex on the terminator where one man and one woman reside among beautiful flora is a sort of Garden of Eden, and after Casrus leaves the Subterior he begins to be seen by the workers as a sort of messiah figure), and most of these references suggest gods are either indifferent towards the mortal, or take pleasure in cruelty towards them.  Lee's depictions of government and technology are obviously not very positive, either.

Day By Night has virtues--Lee has a good writing style and the worlds she creates here are picturesque and compelling-- but it has problems, and I can only give it a lukewarm recommendation.  I think it is fair to compare Day by Night to The Silver Metal Lover, which I adored, and which appeared the year after Day by Night.  The characters in Silver Metal Lover felt like real people, and I had sympathy for them. The characters in Day By Night are a bunch of jerks, and even before I knew they were puppets on strings they felt a little broad and over the top, with motivations that were not quite clear.  When the protagonist of The Silver Metal Lover fell in love with a robot and then tried to commit suicide when the robot was deactivated, it pulled at my heartstrings, but when these creepos are plotting to stab each other in the back I didn't care who ended up with the estate or in exile or dead.

Another problem is length; Day by Night is long, and it feels long.  I felt like every scene in The Silver Metal Lover was adding something to the plot or tone of the book, was making me see or think or feel something.  Day by Night seemed to drag at points.  For one thing, I found one of the worlds more interesting than the other, and while reading about Yunea I was always hoping to get back to the Klave ASAP. Also, I was frustrated that, after Casrus and Vel Thaidis got to the Eden at the terminator where they could control the world and its inhabitants, we never saw them again, but returned to the Yunea and the Klave for 50 more pages of vengeful aristos tricking and trapping each other.

You probably know this already, but I guess I will note here that Lee isn't the kind of science fiction writer who writes things designed to appeal to people who read SF because they are interested in science.  For example, in Day by Night, the gravity in the Yunea and the Klave seems to be perfectly normal, and goes unremarked upon.  But when Casrus goes to the barren airless surface of the dark side of the planet we are told that there is no gravity there.  I suppose the gods could have eliminated the gravity on the dark side surface for dramatic reasons, but this feels like an oops.

If I was charged with making the case for why you should read Day by Night, I would say it is a meditation, by Lee, a prolific writer of speculative fiction, on what it is like to create a fictional world and its inhabitants. Like a deity, the writer invents a milieu, and then takes pleasure in creating/following the adventures of its inhabitants.  Writers, of course, famously people their fantasy worlds with doppelgangers and caricatures of people they know, and include people and plots that represent themselves and their hopes and fears, and this is exactly what Vitra thinks she is doing with her Fabulism.  Day by Night also reminded me of my days as an AD&D-obsessed teenage DM, when I spent countless hours creating and playing in fantasy worlds with my brother.  The "gods" in Day by Night not only manufacture and populate the Klave and the Yunea, but by projecting their psyches into bodies there, participate in their intrigues and escapades.  Just like an RPGer, the gods can enjoy their own deaths safely, because when their bodies are wrecked their psyches fly back to their bodies in the twilight zone.    

I had hoped to enjoy Day by Night as much as I did The Silver Metal Lover, but in the event the experience was more like reading The Storm Lord.  Not bad, but not spectacular.  My next Lee will be Don't Bite the Sun, which looks to be more concise and which I hope will be as masterful as The Silver Metal Lover and such short fiction pieces as "Yellow and Red" and "Magritte's Secret Agent."