Friday, October 13, 2017

Three 1961 stories by R. A. Lafferty from Galaxy

We're still reading my copies of Ace's Nine Hundred Grandmothers and DAW's Strange Doings, two early '70s paperback collections of stories by R. A. Lafferty. Today's tales were all published in Galaxy in 1961.

Back covers of my copies

"All the People"

Oh, this is a good one!  "All the People" starts off slow and deceptively flat; as I read the first two pages I was thinking, "Is this it?  Boring philosophical conversation?"  But "All the People" is a puzzle, a mystery story so mysterious that at first you don't even realize that what you are looking at is a single piece of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle!  The structure of the story is perfect, as is the pacing; reading it is like looking through a telescope and seeing nothing but blur, but then, as you turn the knob, shapes slowly, then quickly, come in to focus until you have a crystal clear image, an image that is  striking, surprising, and a little disturbing.  "All the People" achieves what stories with twist endings try to achieve, but there is not really a twist--everything that happens makes perfect sense and is essentially predictable; Lafferty doesn't use any trickery and he doesn't subvert expectations so much as carry things to an inevitable and logical conclusion--put together the puzzle pieces--faster than the reader may have.

While it may make sense to call "All the People" a mystery story, it doesn't feel like one of those mystery tales in which the reader is a mere spectator, watching some guy chase down some meaningless MacGuffin.  Instead, the reader feels like a participant in the exploration of a whole new world, and what the character is chasing is something meaningful, something tied up in his own character and wider human nature.  Laffert doesn't just succeed in structuring and pacing his story and in constructing its plot, but in providing us an affecting character, Anthony Trotz.

Trotz is a lonely individual who discovers he has a fantastic, incredible, ability, and, as he seeks to confirm that he even has this impossible power and tries to figure out its meaning, the truth of his life and his world is revealed to him.  When all is clear he makes a decision with life-changing and world-shattering ramifications.

A puzzle story and a story of a character, "All the People" is also very solidly a science fiction story, making brilliant use of traditional SF themes like the paradigm shift and the blurry lines between life and not-life and between human and inhuman, as well as standard SF devices like robots, computers, mental powers, government conspiracies and alien invasions. 

Strongly recommended.


This piece is pleasant enough, but feels a little trifling.  Aloys Foulcault-Oeg is an impoverished intellectual from a long line of impoverished people (he wears his great-grandfather's holed and patched overcoat which has been passed down generation after generation) living in an obscure country.  When he comes up with a groundbreaking series of formulae he is invited to a big event in New York ("the great town where even the shop girls dressed like princesses") to receive a valuable award.  Criminals kidnap Aloys and an imposter gives a three-and-a-half hour speech in his place.  As we all know, academics are phonies, so none of the leading thinkers assembled to hear the speech reveal it is incomprehensible nonsense.  The crooks get their hands on Aloys' award, but the ending of the story is a happy one for Aloys--he joins the criminal gang, leaving his life of poverty behind.

"Aloys" is a fun little story with fun touches, like the characters' names.  The main character's name seems to refer to Lafferty's own, of course, as well as that of famous (and famously difficult and dubious) French scholar Michel Foucault, though 1961 was pretty early in Foucault's career--maybe this is just a happy coincidence?  Did Lafferty think of himself as a poor man feted by phony elites?  As a writer whose work was regarded as complex and perhaps bogus?  Another significant name is that of the man who finances the award and ceremony and has a "villa in the province, which is to say, Long Island"--Maecenas.

I like it, but compared to the other Lafferty stories I've been reading, it feels kind of slight. 


This is a time travel story, all about a scientist and inventor who goes back in time to give his young self advice.  You see, when Higgston Rainbird is old, in the middle of the nineteenth century, he can look back on a career of considerable achievement, but he regrets the many years spent on dead ends--if he had known which avenues of research and development were going to go nowhere he would have made much more progress.  So he goes back in time to spend a few hours issuing much time-saving advice to his younger self; as a result, this new, wiser, iteration of Rainbird is able to accomplish such astonishing and beneficial feats as travelling to Mars, building a computer, and putting into operation a social system which abolishes government--all before 1850!

Still, there is much work to be done--finishing up his project that will unlock the secret of immortality, for example.  So, Rainbird goes back in time again in an effort to repeat his scheme, but this time disaster results.  Distracted by such addictive hobbies as falconry and horse racing, the latest iteration of the inventor achieves relatively little, and all that progress in energy, electronics, transport, and political science is undone, in fact, never occurred.

Like "Aloys" this is an entertaining story, but fails to reach the level of the very fine "All the People" or the 1960 stories we talked about in our last blog post.


In our next episode we'll take a look at some Raphael Aloysius Lafferty productions that debuted in Galaxy and If in 1962!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Four 1960 stories by R. A. Lafferty

It's been a while since we've read anything by R. A. Lafferty, so let's take my copies of 1970's Nine Hundred Grandmothers, an Ace Science Fiction Special with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, and DAW's 1972 collection Strange Doings, which has a Jack Gaughan cover, down from the shelf and read four stories by the Iowa-born Oklahoma resident and recipient of a 1990 World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.

"Through Other Eyes"

This is a story about how our beliefs and perceptions are not simply objective and accurate views of the outside world, but are guided or distorted by our attitudes and interests, so that we all see different, even live in different, worlds.  The first two pages of this fifteen-page story act as a sort of prologue, in which scientists Charles Cogsworth and Gregory Smirnov talk about the experience of using their time machine, which allowed them to view famous people and events of the past.  These viewings were a terrible disappointment--reputedly beautiful Isolde was obese, famously witty Voltaire was in fact a disgusting pervert, Sappho, remembered as a genius poet, turned out to be a tedious cat lady, the fabled hero Lancelot was in fact almost too feeble to mount a horse, etc.

The main plot concerns Cogsworth's new machine, the Cerebral Scanner, which allows one to experience the inner thoughts and view of the world of other people and creatures.  Through the eyes of a skeptical critic he sees a world that is unsavory and mean, through the eyes of an important business executive he sees a world of numberless details and infinite connections that can--and must!--be managed by a pull of a string here or there (the connections are likened to reins, the executive to God and to a general commanding an army), and so on.  Cogsworth is eager to use the machine to observe the world through the eyes of Valery Mok, a beautiful woman whom he thinks an angel, a wit, and a paragon of kindness. (Lafferty makes clear that she is in fact none of these things, just a pleasant but essentially ordinary woman--Cogsworth's love for her has distorted his view of her.)  When Cogsworth sees the world through her eyes he is painfully disillusioned--her world is one of pervasive, overwhelming, sensuality--to Cogsworth the sensations she enjoys as she smells trees, touches a rail, or looks at clouds are shockingly and grossly, filthy, coarsely obscene.  "I had thought Valery was an is a shock to find that she is a pig."

When Mok uses the Cerebral Scanner to see the world as Cogsworth sees it, she is amazed to find how bloodless, loveless, and lifeless his view of the world is, and compares him to a pig, a pig made of dry dead sticks.  "You live with dead people, Charles.  You make everything dead.  You are abominable."  Lafferty gives us a happy ending, though; Mok, we see, the lively and sensuous woman, is going to open the cold and clinical scientist's eyes to the throbbing vitality and earthy beauty of our world and the two will live happily ever after.

"Through Other Eyes" first appeared in Future Science Fiction and seems to have been well-received, reappearing in Robert Silverberg's Mind to Mind as well as Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Six Fingers of Time"

This is one of those SF stories in which a guy can halt or severely slow down time and then take advantage of people as they stand still as statues or (not quite so anti-socially) get some extra work done.  The most famous of these stories are perhaps John D. MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything from 1962, which I have not read, and Nicholson Baker's 1994 The Fermata, which I read in the 20th century and plan to reread sometime this century.  If Wikipedia and my memory are to be trusted, both those novels focus on sex and the use of the time-retarding power to do things like undress women against their will.  In E. C. Tubb's Dumarest series there are the drugs slow-time and quick-time that speed up or slow down your metabolism forty times--by taking these drugs you can heal forty times faster or do forty times as much work in an hour (in a memorable scene in Lallia Dumarest uses slow-time to produce enough product to meet a crucial deadline) or slow you down so tedious space voyages seem to pass forty times as quickly.  In some Warhammer 40,000 games psykers can invoke the power of the warp to slow or speed up time for particular individuals or small areas and so get more moves than their foes.

In "The Six Fingers of Time," Charles Vincent wakes up and finds that time has slowed so much that each second, to him, feels like a minute, each minute an hour.  After exploring the slow-motion city he goes to the office and catches up on two days worth of work before any of his colleagues even shows up.

The effect wears off and after some months have passed he begins to almost think that crazy day was no more than a dream.  But then he meets a mysterious figure whose face is hidden, who hints that Vincent, who has a deformed thumb that suggests a sixth digit, is a descendant of an ancient race of six-fingered people who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  This strange character teaches Vincent how to switch on and off his time-retarding power, and Vincent proceeds to uses his weird talent to play cruel jokes on people, to take advantage of women sexually, to steal money, to learn scores of foreign languages and to accumulate esoteric knowledge.

Besides adding the Weird Tales-style bloodline-of-an-ancient-lost-race-of-wizards angle to our guy-who-controls-time-and-abuses-people story, Lafferty, one of the SF world's most prominent and most hard core Catholics, adds a moral and Christian dimension.  The faceless figure, it appears, is the Devil, and Vincent risks a horrible fate for using his inhuman ability to harm others and enjoy benefits he has not earned.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was first published in If and later was the title story of an anthology of stories from that magazine which, somewhat bizarrely, pretended to be an anthology of stories from If's sister magazine Galaxy.  Both magazines were edited by Horace L. Gold, so I guess the publishers of the volume felt they would be forgiven this little trespass against the trust of the SF-reading public.  (No respect!)

"The Ugly Sea"

In three of the stories we are talking about today Lafferty uses traditional SF topics and themes ("I'm travelling through time!"; "I'm reading people's minds!"; "I can stop time!"; "I'm on an alien planet fighting a huge monster!") but "The Ugly Sea" is more of a mainstream literary piece, and appropriately enough first appeared in The Literary Review, a journal put out by Fairleigh Dickinson University of the great state of New Jersey.  (I once attended a wedding at Fairleigh Dickinson.  Fascinating, right?)  It takes up a traditional literary theme, the sea and its strange allure.  No doubt you remember the opening passages of Moby Dick, in which the narrator describes his own irresistible attraction to the sea, which he suspects all men share, and Homer's phrase "the wine-dark sea," which has become proverbial.  Rock music aficionados are familiar with Pete Townshend's use of the beach and the sea as recurring motifs in The Who's masterpiece Quadropheniawhile sword and sorcery fans (to bring us back to SF) may recall how, in Swords in the Mist,  Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser spoke of "their mistress, the sea...her rages and caressings, her coolths and unending dancings, sometimes lightly footing a minuet, sometimes furiously a-stamp, and her infinitude of secret parts."

In the frame story of "The Ugly Sea" Lafferty takes a counterintuitive but quite credible tack, having storyteller Sour John declare that the sea is ugly ("It has the aroma of an open is perhaps the most untidy thing in the is monotonous, with only four or five faces, and all of them coarse") but wins the love of men, including Sour John himself, just the same.  The main plot of "The Ugly Sea," which Sour John narrates, is about an associate of John's, a Jewish loan shark named Moysha Uferwohner, who falls in love with Bonny, a twelve-year-old crippled girl who plays piano (badly) at the Blue Fish, a bar frequented by seamen.  Bonny is fated to marry a sailor, so Moysha becomes a sailor himself, even though, as Sour John tells us, the Jews, "God's own people," have always "shunned" that "evil grave," the ocean.  Moysha, according to Sour John, is only the third Jewish seaman in all of history! 

Melville's Ishmael equates his desire to go to sea with suicide: "This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."  Lafferty's story here similarly conjoins seafaring and death.  It is very bad luck, we are told, for a seaman to marry a cripple, but a sailor marries Bonny when she is fifteen years old, anyway.  This tar soon dies of illness at sea, and Bonny remarries at sixteen--this second sailor is killed in a terrible accident in a ship's engine room.  Finally at seventeen she marries Moysha; Moysha leaves his five-year career as a sailor behind, and these two crazy kids live happily together inland for three years.

But the sea has gotten under Moysha's skin!  Those three blissful years end when Moysha is drawn back to the sailor's life.  He joins Sour John's crew, abandoning his wife and children for certain death.

I've had no luck finding an image online of the cover of the Fall 1960 issue of The Literary Review, so all you people who click over to MPorcius Fiction Log for the pictures will have to be satisfied with an image of the second place "The Ugly Sea" appeared, New Worlds of Fantasy #2 with its effective Kelly Freas cover.   

[UPDATE January 2, 2018: Commenter Todd Mason owns a copy of the Autumn 1960 issue of The Literary Review, and points out below that Lafferty's "The Ugly Sea" is in fact in the Autumn 1961 issue.  I was mislead by a typo at isfdb, which still lists "Fall 1960" as the issue in which the story appeared.] 


Planet Bellota is one strange world.  Though a mere one hundred miles in circumference, it has a gravity equal to half that of Earth's.  It is home to many insects, but each individual bug seems to be of a different species.  Lightning storms are constant, and the rinds of fruits are edible while the flesh is unpalatable.  And then there is the sole large inhabitant, a friendly beast much like a large bear which, like the insects, seems to have no sex or parents.  A team of six Earthling scientists is carefully studying this mysterious world until, unexpectedly, Snuffles the heretofore friendly pseudo-ursine suddenly attacks and they have to fight and then flee for their lives!

Lafferty wrote quite a few stories that feature horrendous violence, and "Snuffles" is one of them--the Earth expedition suffers heavy casualties in its struggle against Snuffles!  The survivors of the initial surprise attack march day after day, the wounded Snuffles hot on their heels, toying with them.  Lacking any supplies, the Earthers resort to eating native plants, including those with hallucinogenic properties.  Around the time they start eating this stuff, the survivors begin to receive what appear to be telepathic messages from Snuffles.  Lafferty has already given us reason to suspect Snuffles is a God or Devil or, most likely, a Gnostic demiurge figure (if you needed one, reading "Snuffles" provides a reason to read the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism), and our suspicions are further fueled when Snuffle's messages (or are they merely hallucinations fueled by the scientists' exhaustion and ingestion of narcotic plants?--like "Through Other Eyes," this story is in part about how questionable our perceptions of the world can be) assert that Snuffles created planet Bellota, and maybe the entire universe.

I didn't know until I had finished the story whether any of the humans would get off the planet alive or if any of the planet's mysteries would be solved.

It is normal to read SF stories in which human beings are jerks who despoil the environment and are too quick to resort to violence.  But in "Snuffles" Lafferty makes sure we see the human characters as good people and even seems to be suggesting that we are too gullible, too eager to see the universe as benign when in fact it is inimical.  At the start of the story one character argues that Bellota is the only "fun" planet in the galaxy (when it is in fact the planet where they will be massacred), and during Snuffle's first attack the leader of the expedition chooses to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill because "He was fond of Snuffles and gambled that it would not be necessary to kill him."  These people are too reluctant to resort to violence!  Another interesting aspect of the story is how Lafferty implies that Bellota, which seems like a topsy-turvy, atypical world, is actually the only sincere or normal planet in the universe, and/or is a mirror which displays reality to those few who have the opportunity to visit it.     
If you want to read another well-written story by a Catholic conservative about people pursued by an intelligent alien bear (I know some of you have very specific interests) I strongly recommend Gene Wolfe's "Try and Kill It" from 1996, a very good adventure/horror story.  I kind of wonder if "Try and Kill It" is a subtle homage to "Snuffles;" Wolfe actually uses the word "snuffling" in it, though that is hardly dispositive.  I'm also wondering if there is any chance "Snuffles" is an homage to A. E. van Vogt's 1939 "Black Destroyer," one of the inaugural stories of science fiction's Golden Age.  As you no doubt already know, in "Black Destroyer" a bunch of scientists make friends with an over-sized alien beast which seems friendly at first but later starts murdering them.

"Snuffles" first appeared in Galaxy and has been pretty successful, being included in anthologies in America, Britain, France, and Germany, including an anthology devoted to stories about religion.


It is easy to recommend all four of these stories--they are all smooth and entertaining reads with fun little jokes and all feature interesting themes we've seen before but do different things with them.  Being written over 50 years ago by somebody who wasn't exactly taking pains to appeal to current trends in what constituted acceptable thinking, these stories can sometimes surprise--broad-brush assertions about women (they are more sensual than men!) and Jews (they never become sailors!) are good examples.  The stories also invite consideration of whether they have some deep meaning or philosophical point to make, even if Sour John in "The Ugly Sea" responds to a listener who asks, "Is there a moral to this?" with the flat declaration, "No.  It is an immoral story.  And it's a mystery to me."

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The House of Many Worlds by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Elspeth decided she was getting blase.  Inter-world travel seemed to involve some very high living.
My copy
Sam Merwin, Jr. was editing Startling Stories when it published Raymond F. Jones' The Cybernetic Brains and Edmond Hamilton's The City at World's End, and editing Thrilling Wonder Stories when it published Leigh Brackett's Sea-Kings of Mars and Jack Vance's Son of the Tree, all novels we have enjoyed this year here at MPorcius Fiction Log's Middlewestern HQ and arthropod sanctuary.  But Merwin didn't just buy SF novels--he wrote five or six of them!  And today we take a look at one of them, 1951's The House of Many Worlds.  I own the 1969 paperback from Curtis Books; I like the face and moon in the cover illustration, and the blurbs from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle really sell it as a fun adventure caper.  Let's check it out!

Elspeth Marriner is a snob and a poet who misses New York!  (Tell me about it, lady!)  She's stuck in a hick town of dirt roads, dingy fly-infested restaurants and dilapidated quays on the Carolina coast, sent there to write about "the Hatteras Keys" by the editor of Picture Week, who has partnered her with photographer Mack Fraser--Fraser is a former prizefighter and he has the crooked nose to prove it!  When one of the "natives," as Mack and Elspeth call him behind his back, tells them that a secluded mansion on an island owned by the reclusive Horelle family is sometimes visited by queer lights in the sky before major world events, the journalos (as Kmele Foster might style them) think they've finally found the story they need if they are to return to Gotham in triumph! 

Elspeth and Mack hie to the Horelle estate, where they meet dignified old Mr. Horelle and beautiful young Juana.  Horelle explains that when a turning point in history occurs, like the first flight of the Wright brothers' plane or the disappearance of the colony at Roanoke, a new time stream is created, branching off from the time stream in which, say, the Wrights' machine failed or the Roanoke colony survived.  The Horelles' magnificent house lies on a "tangential point" from whence people can travel between these alternate universes, and the Horelles, who are "Watchers" charged with protecting all these different dimensions, have chosen Elspeth and Mack for a very important mission!

When our heroes get back to the mainland they are in a version of the USA called "Columbia" that is less democratic and less capitalistic than our own.  As a result, the economy is weaker, politics is less stable, and technological progress has not taken the same course--there are no internal combustion engines or airplanes, for example, but there are railroads and boats powered by rockets.  Merwin spends several pages detailing the convoluted alternate history of this world, which features a Columbian Civil War in which New England was defeated by the rest of the country, a British Canada and French Mexico larger than in our own world, and a Columbian capitol is New Orleans.  When Elspeth and Mack arrive a rebellion is underway, led by Reed Weston, an idealistic politician and genius scientist who wants to extend the franchise to all men and liberate private property from excessive government regulation.  Mr. Horelle favors Weston, and has given E&M the task of helping him in his struggle to liberalize Columbia.  How can a poet and photographer help Weston?  Well, they have a car that can fly, which will provide a valuable advantage in a world with no aircraft.

E&M travel to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and then Texas in their quest to hook up with Weston, spending a lot of time in fancy restaurants and hotels doing spy and detective stuff.  (Wikipedia is telling me Merwin wrote more detective stories than SF stories, but doesn't offer any clues as to why he spends so much time in this book describing fashion and interior decorating.)  People try to capture them and they escape.  A character whom they thought was a bad guy, a sympathetic and admirable African-American named John Henry whose perfect body and noble soul ("Here, she thought, was a man close to God") receive lavish and loving descriptions, turns out to be a good guy.  An effeminate fop with an affected English accent who presented himself as a good guy turns out to be a bad guy--Elspeth realizes he's a villain when she sees a tattoo behind his ear.  Halfway through the book they meet Weston, who has invented and built a rocket ship and is planning to take the sixty finest human specimens to colonize Mars.  (Weston wants to bring John Henry, whom Elspeth thinks of as "an ebon demigod," to Mars, but Henry insists on staying Earthside to fight for freedom!)

When Weston sees the flying car he decides to stay on Earth and fight the Columbian government and begins manufacturing flying cars of his own.  Gorgeous Juanna reappears to take E&M to a different version of Earth, one where they trade Weston's rocket blueprints to President Roosevelt (the third of that name) for an asbestos-bakelite armor which Weston's troops can use to counteract the Columbian government's heat guns.  We spend more time in restaurants and well-appointed lodgings and chasing that Anglophile "swish," as Elspeth calls him.  After the problem of Roosevelt's world--international tensions caused by overpopulation--is solved by access to space and the political crisis in Weston's world is resolved via negotiation--the Columbian government balking at fighting a fleet of heat-resistant flying cars--E&M return to their own world, where we get the sense-of-wonder ending that Merwin has been hinting at.  E&M's world is not our own, but one in which flying cars are normal and the United States is part of the British Empire.

I'm afraid the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle have sold me a pig in a poke--The House of Many Worlds is not good at all.  The adventure plot is boring, slow and unconvincing--I couldn't care less if Weston took over Columbia or Mars or anywhere.  Just a third of the way through this thing's 200 pages I felt like abandoning ship.  The narrative is larded with passages that I guess are supposed to be evocative but which just waste the reader's time, like detailed descriptions of people smoking ("Henry paused long enough to flick a three-inch ash from his cigar into a hole with a metal rim set in the corner of the desk itself") and long stream of consciousness sections in which Elspeth composes poems ("It should rhyme tidily, she decided further, and consist of three quatrains with an unexpected little rhyme break in the middle of each line.")

The human plot is equally lame, "opposites attract" bilge like something from a light women's romantic comedy film (the kids call those "romcoms") or a slowed-down version of one of those irritating fast-talking screwball comedies from '30s-'40s Hollywood.  Elspeth is a hypocritical feminist who thinks of herself as a woman who can hold her own in a man's world but at the same time expects men to treat her gallantly--they are supposed to carry her bags and open doors for her and offer her cigarettes (this book is full of smoking) without her asking. Being a sensitive artiste, she hates machines and looks down on Mack as an uncreative type who loves machines; this causes her some angst as Mack's aggressive quick thinking and machinery keep saving their lives. The House of Many Worlds is very repetitive, and many times we are confronted with a paragraph in which Elspeth starts admiring Mack and then condemns herself for it.  Here's a particularly stupid one which I was too lazy to type (don't be ashamed if you are too lazy to read it):

Mack dallies with Juanna, the perfect woman, and Elspeth dallies with John Henry, the perfect man, but we know that flawed Mack and flawed Elspeth are meant for each other, not that we care what happens to these two pills.

The plot and characters of House are outlandish and absurd, but the book is never funny.  Am I supposed to think Elspeth's idiotic snobbery, the ridiculousness of sending a poet and photographer to do the job you'd expect commandos or intelligence operatives to do, or the effete mannerisms of a caricature of a gay man are funny?  I guess in theory these things could be funny, but Merwin's writing is too repetitive, too broad, and too lacking in cleverness or surprise to elicit a laugh.  The funniest thing about the novel is the extravagantly and embarrassingly overdone portrait of John Henry as the ultimate man, but presumably this is Merwin's sincere effort to fight racism and not an intentional lampoon of white fetishization of black people or the "magical Negro" trope or a writer who goes overboard trying to assuage his "white guilt."  (The gushing about Juanna after she gets disintegrated by the swish's heat pistol is almost as bad.)     

House fails as an adventure story, and as a humor piece.  Does it succeed as an SF story (if we are considering SF to be a literature of ideas which speculates on how different life and civilization might be under different conditions?)  No, it does not.  Because of all the alternate history and time stream jazz we've endured before (even if, in fairness to Merwin, lots of it was published after House) the novel does not feel fresh and none of its ideas is compelling.  All the talk about rocket-powered trains and flying automobiles and all the long descriptions of alternate histories of North American politics are sterile decoration at best and leaden burdens that weigh down the narrative at worst.

I try to be a generous reviewer who looks for good things in books, even those which have serious weaknesses, but I can't find much of anything good in The House of Many Worlds.  The negative verdict is inescapable.