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Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Deji Bryce Olukotun

After the Flare, by Deji Bryce Olukotun (Unnamed Press 978-1-9447-0018-8, $16.00, 264pp, tp September 2017)

Despite its provocative title, Deji Bryce Olukotun’s first novel Nigerians in Space escaped my attention in 2014, but as it turns out, the Nigerians don’t actually get into space in that novel, which is mostly an international thriller centered around an effort to bring expatriate Nigerian brain power back to the home country (or the ‘‘brain gain,’’ as one character put it). It was apparently only tangentially SF, and I haven’t read it. However, despite carrying over a couple of the same characters and being listed as the second novel in a trilogy, there’s nothing tangential about After the Flare, which works perfectly well as standalone SF. Olukotun, an American attorney and activist whose connections to Africa seem to be largely through his Nigerian father and his MFA from South Africa, begins quite literally with the sort of bang that recalls Neal Stephenson’s blowing up the moon in the first sentence of his Seveneves: an enormous solar flare not only endangers the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but – followed by a series of cyberattacks – wipes out virtually all the electrical grids and electromagnetic networks on most of the planet, leaving only a few nations near the equator with functioning infrastructures. A year later, it falls to the nascent Nigerian space program to mount a mission to save the one remaining survivor of the space station, a Ukrainian astronaut, before her supplies of air and food run out. The central character, Kwesi Bracket, is hired to engineer the giant water-filled simulation tank for the astronauts to train in before the mission can be completed. Not too surprisingly, he faces not only technical challenges, but posturing politicians and bureaucrats, shady industrialists, a clueless film crew making a propaganda piece about the project, and the danger of terrorist raids from Boko Haram and an equally violent fundamentalist group called the Jarumi.

That alone would seem to be the template for a solid near-future technothriller, with the rescue mission itself recalling elements of Andy Weir’s The Martian or the film Gravity, but Olukotun has a good deal more in mind. Bracket is given a strange artifact with unidentifiable markings, and a worker who steals the artifact promptly disappears in a puddle of blood. Sonic readings intended to measure the stability of the land beneath the launch site reveal the presence of something large and alive moving about underground, and Bracket himself barely survives when his trailer is attacked by an inhuman creature with what seems to be electrified skin. Even his biomechanical ‘‘geckofone’’ (there are also python phones and hummingbird phones) is attacked by a huge biomechanical spider seeking either to destroy it or retrieve its data. Meanwhile, in a second plot line, a group of tribal Wodaabe women, led by a young rape victim named Balewa, are waging their own insurgency against the Jarumi, which has kidnapped many of their children, using apparently magical ‘‘songstones’’ which can be used either as assault weapons or as a way of creating protective force fields. How those ancient, traditional songstones get incorporated into Olukotun’s SF plot is a bit convoluted, and Bracket needs to bring in a crusty old scientist from the first novel – Dr. Wole Olufunme, a kind of Nigerian Professor Challenger – in order to start drawing the threads together.

This is a lot to pack into a relatively short thriller, and it’s to Olukotun’s credit that he keeps the action moving at a rapid, almost non-stop pace, skillfully dropping in bits of slightly futuristic technology like those critter-phones, insect-sized ‘‘malflies’’ designed to disrupt computers, or web geeks called ‘‘newshounds,’’ so integrated with their own newsfeeds that their speech is peppered with random bulletins unconnected to whatever they’re supposed to be talking about (I know a few people well on the way already). But by the time he introduces ancient astrolabes, meteorites that respond to music, and the notion that the Iron Age Nok culture of Nigeria – which disappeared some 1,500 years ago – might still be around, and with an advanced technology to boot, he risks moving into Indiana Jones or even Dan Brown territory – which can seem a bit jarring in a future in which real horrors like Boko Haram are still plaguing Nigeria. As much fun as these alarms and divagations might be on their own terms, by the time we finally get around to launching the rescue mission, which finally does involve Nigerians in space, it almost seems an anticlimax. Olukotun shows a flair for both kinetic pacing and credible SF speculation, though, and now that he’s broken the tether into pure SF, it will be very interesting to see where the third novel in the trilogy takes us.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Jeff Noon

A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-670-3, $14.99, 352pp, trade paperback) August 2017

Even for a reader old enough to have lived through the year 1993 and its associated fantastika publications, that period now seems impossibly distant and alien, an era akin to the Enlightenment or the Renaissance–or maybe the Dark Ages, given one’s particular slant on the past. For younger readers, the events and atmosphere of nearly twenty-five years ago must seem positively Precambrian. True, many folks active then–Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walter Jon Williams, Joe Haldeman, Stephen Baxter, Connie Willis–are still writing today as well. But so many other prominent figures of that period have left us: Brian Aldiss, Steve Utley, Neal Barrett, Charles Sheffield. (I’m being inspired by the table of contents from Gardner Dozois’s eleventh Year’s Best that came out in 1994, by the way.)

But more crucially, not only were a whole host of prominent 21st-century writers yet unpublished, but also entire literary movements and magazines and publishers and vast controversies and revanchist attitudes from 2017 barely existed. Why, cyberpunk was arguably then still the Last Big Thing. And the larger world outside the genre was unimaginably different, with the World Wide Web barely born, and its first handmaiden, Netscape’s Navigator browser, still a year away from release. The genre and the world at large were shaped and contoured and mediated by now-antique modalities and platforms and beliefs.

A better time? A worse? Different but equivalent? I shall refrain from offering an opinion.

Certainly, though, any year that saw the appearance of Jeff Noon’s first novel, Vurt, a slipstreamy, psychedelic, gonzo extravaganza that won the Clarke Award, cannot be dismissed as negligible. With roughly nine more books of admirable quality following in those twenty-five years, Noon has not been idle. Yet, somehow, it seems to me, he has never quite reclimbed the peak of public acclaim marked by Vurt. Perhaps his new book will garner its due share of fresh attention. While Vurt was undeniably the in-your-face work of a brash wunderkind, A Man of Shadows is arguably even better: the product of a more mature, surer writer with less desire to awe the reader for the sheer sake of showing off his chops, and more intent on producing emotional resonances, more vivid storylines, and imparting whatever hard-earned wisdom the writer has garnered.

The first thing to convey is the book’s central engine: simple, yet offering immense territory and narrative possibilities. Our setting is a city divided in two. One half of the metropolis is Dayzone, a place of perpetual brightness, created by a kludgy aerial canopy of limitless electric bulbs of all sorts. Lacking any of the common referents of passing time, the inhabitants are free to indulge in designer timelines centered on business pursuits or pleasure or other themes. Perhaps, speculation goes, every individual will eventually exist on a unique continuum. Special rooms are amped up with even more than usual brilliance to provide total saturation of delicious photons.

The other half of the city is, of course, Nocturna, a land of perpetual darkness, save for the bare minimum of pale lighting. Here, navigation is achieved by charting the stars that show down the avenues and streets.

Many people inhabit, alternately, both parts of the city. But one cannot simply walk back and forth. The halves are separated by Dusk, a land of strange properties, reputed to house the dead, or other specters. Special trains take citizens from Dayzone to Nocturna, and vice versa.

This place, by the way, is part of our world in the year 1959, as indicated by shared cultural tokens, yet existing off some spurline of reality.

Our hero is one John Henry Nyquist, a private eye. His current assignment: find a runaway heiress named Eleanor Bale. It should be mentioned here that Noon deploys the archetypes of the Chandleresque noir novel intimately and deftly. All the standard tropes and personages and situations of the mode are found here: the greedy, amoral father; the shattered emotional mother; the scummy drug dealer; the quirky servants and clerks and functionaries; the gruff cops. But they are reinvigorated both by the uniqueness of the shaping conceit they inhabit, and by Noon’s attention to unique details and the care he lavishes on the depiction of even the slightest figure.

Nyquist, of course, as hero, receives the most elaboration, with Eleanor following. He is a rough case. Personal tragedies from childhood onward have left him shattered but resilient, seeking to earn a buck while helping people. But this case will finally break him down. Eleanor Bale, when he encounters her, begins to exert a strange hypnotic pull on Nyquist (whose name, I like to fancy, resembles “night quest”). The case assumes personal meaning. He loses her, but tracks her down in Dusk. There, he and she are witness to a strange murder. Nyquist takes control of Eleanor and delivers her to her father. But he cannot let the case go. Strange perceptions–perhaps induced by the time-bending drug, kia–are coming to dominate his mind. Losing his grip on reality, wracked physically, pulled amongst different factions, Nyquist has two goals: to protect Eleanor from what seems to be a predestined doom, and to unriddle the truth of her abnormal nature.

The announced fact that Nyquist will return in a sequel, The Body Library, will reassure us that he survives. But the nature and dangers of his journey will nonetheless demand much from him.

What Noon has achieved here is a masterful and ultimately unique synthesis and extension of a few other allied works in the SF genre. One could point to Alex Proyas’s film from 1998, Dark City, as a useful marker. Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows contributes a little flavoring, as do Steve Aylett’s Beerlight quartet and the Interzone segments of Naked Lunch. Noon’s mysterious land of Dusk might bring to mind M. John Harrison’s warped spacetime of the Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy. And most recently, of course, we must point to China Miéville’s The City & the City, for its depiction of an urban space divided both physically and psychologically. In fact, Noon’s book certainly must be included in any ongoing roster of the New Weird.

One of Noon’s strengths from the outset of his career has been his ability to deliver surreal, imagist, outré sights and actions. He continues in this vein here, giving us unforgettable visions, sometimes almost throwaway yet still evocative, sometimes central to his themes and the plot development. Here is an idle moment:

Nyquist walked away from the parked car. He had brought along a more powerful torch this time, and he had no intention of getting too close to the fogline, but still, icy fingers started up his spine as the first swirls of dusk appeared in the air. The evening sky was painted in many different shades of grey except for where the yellow moon floated half seen in the distance. There was much speculation about this moon, one of many that occupied different areas of Dusk. It was common knowledge that this particular orb was the giant neon logo atop the old Luna Insurance office tower, a building long since given up to the dusk. But who or what was it that kept the moon aglow all these years? It was just one more mystery of the twilight.

Nyquist stopped. He had reached the Fade Away weather station with its weird-looking instruments and measuring devices. Close up, he found the instruments to be even stranger than he remembered; the spindly elongated structures looked more like abstract sculptures, or primitive totems. His torch beam flickered across the various decorations that had been added to the poles and collecting dishes: mirror shards, lenses taken from cameras and sunglasses, polished shapes cut from aluminium foil, fragments of coloured glass. Fine sparkling chains hung from steel rods, each one strung with silver cogs and springs taken from the movements of clocks and pocket watches. Numerous cobwebs were strung between the struts, each dotted with dew, and each containing its own guardian, a bulbous orange-bellied spider unlike any other that Nyquist had ever seen. The whole station glittered with light in ever-transforming patterns, a magical effect; and yet, when the torch beam moved away, all of this splendour was lost to the gloom.

The Moon an old advertising sign. How perfect!

The tactility and sensory depth of his environments are rich and satisfying. Yet Noon also delivers acute psychological perceptions as well, sometimes couched in almost Ballardian terms: “Nyquist felt he was reading a journal of his own madness.”

In the end, the fusion and bleed-through of inner and outer states, the mix of action and hallucination, past and present, self-reflection and compulsions give us a book that is at once dream-like and yet utterly grounded in some undeniably solid sphere of existence.

Jeff Noon has walked through some strange lands during the quarter of a century since his first book, and has kindly consented to take us along.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Russell Letson reviews Charles Stross

The Delirium Brief, Charles Stross (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9466-8, $24.99, 381pp, hc) July 2017. Cover by Peter Lutjen

The harried operatives of the demon-wrangling covert service called the Laundry can’t catch a break in Charles Stross’s The Delirium Brief, which picks up in the aftermath of the disastrous cross-universe invasion of last year’s The Nightmare Stacks. The pitched battles with hordes of elven warriors riding unicorns and dragons – and the smoking wreckage in and around Leeds – have made the news in a big way. Magic has been unleashed, the Laundry has been outed, and the basilisk gaze of the political establishment is fixed on it. With almost no warning, the agency finds itself under the worst kind of non-magical attack: by politicians. It is to be reorganized and privatized, personnel sacked, clearances revoked, facilities closed. This is a very hostile hostile takeover, since some key people, including onetime computational demonologist Bob Howard (now promoted, all unwilling, to the condition of Eater of Souls), are forced to go to ground as a result of assassination attempts and faked criminal charges.

The source of the hostility is an offshore organization presenting itself as a free-market thaumaturgical-security contractor, and running that outfit is an old antagonist: the Rev. Schiller of Golden Promise Ministries, from way back in The Apocalypse Codex (2012), last seen on the wrong side of the gate to the universe of the extremely dire Sleeper in the Pyramid, and presumed dead (or eaten or absorbed or whatever). Now he has unaccountably returned and is in charge of the blandly branded GP Services, a much sleeker and more focused operation, prepared to engage the British Establishment at the very highest levels for the very lowest of reasons: to clear the way so his new extradimensional master can take over an entire nation of souls.

To this end, he and others who have been induct­ed into the secrets of the former Ministries’ Inner Temple are equipped with a physico-spiritual para­site with a dispersal mechanism (aka Elevation) so nasty and so graphically described that there is unlikely to ever be a faithful film dramatization of this volume of the Laundry series. But as squirm-inducing as that is, it’s just special effects com­pared to the routine cynicism of the material-world threat, the horror of the well-oiled machineries of privatization. As one of Bob’s colleagues puts it, ‘‘We know how to deal with soul-stealing horrors, not death from above by legal sleight-of-hand.’’ How such sleights are managed is the subject of a scornful, detailed three-page passage that is interestingly posi­tioned right after a clinical description of an Elevation via Rev. Schiller’s trouser companion. Privatization and parasitism, neatly paralleled.

The Laundry-story recipe calls for one-third el­dritch threat, one-third workplace comic satire, and one-third spy-thriller action. Accordingly, Ingredient Number Three deals with the challenges of maintain­ing and operating a covert agency when its resources and official authority have been withdrawn and most of its personnel compromised – the challenges of doing the job despite the undermining efforts of corrupted or deluded legal authorities and secret bad guys. Nor is this just a matter of safe houses and tradecraft, but of retaining some degree of legitimacy to act, of determining in whose name the officially defunct Laundry can act, because in this world, names and oaths can have metaphysical and material as well as legal force, and a Laundry warrant card grants not just legal power but Power.

Once that problem has been hashed out (via some dodgy and creative interpretations of lines of author­ity) and the opposition’s territories and actors have been scouted, the big-push operation against the bad guys occupies most of the last hundred pages – almost a quarter of the text – an extended, multi-viewpoint caper sequence involving actors from the last three books – PHANGs (vampires to the uninitiated), a witch, an elf-queen, an SAS-style commando/com­bat magician, and even a couple of former Laundry antagonists.

Beneath the playfulness and the fun-poking at bureaucracies and office politics there always lurks genuine fears of genuinely frightening forces. In this case, privatization is, to use currently fashionable language, literally an existential threat – weaponized jargon and bureaucratic procedures. (Although weap­onized private parts are not to be ignored, either.) The final showdowns are gaudy and gory but not quite glo­rious, considering what they cost. This is Stross in one of his darker moods, familiar from the atmosphere of Scratch Monkey, which remains for me a key to un­derstanding his sensibility. I suspect that the political side of the book – the distress at the normal operation of the sausage-factory of government (alluded to in the epigraph) signals some of the real-world anxieties that stand behind this entire series.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews C. Robert Cargill

Sea of Rust, by C. Robert Cargill (Harper Voyager 978-0-06-240583-8, $27.99, 384pp, hardcover) September 2017

Robots are obviously an SF “power chord,” an essential, irreplaceable, infinitely mutable trope. And so long as there have been robots, there have been tales of robot rebellions or uprisings. Obviously, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R from 1920 is a primary starting point. But today we are concerned only with a subset of the robot rebellion canon: the tales where robots succeed in their goal of wiping out all humanity. This type of tale is much rarer, and its examples less well catalogued. Instances can however, be teased out of the comprehensive SFE entry on “Robots.”

Certainly the notion of an Earth populated only by robots (and uplifted dogs, of course) as detailed in Simak’s classic City has a place in the lineage, although the robots there are inheritors rather than conquerors. One also senses that Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids could have moved in this direction, once the robot masters decided the safest place for humanity was nonexistence. The lurid comic from 1952, Robotmen of the Lost Planet, brings humanity to edge of extinction. And of course, the 1960s four-color epic of Magnus, Robot Fighter implied a similar eventual outcome. Brian Aldiss’s “But Who Can Replace a Man?” remains a groundbreaking entry in this catalog. Lastly from this era, Lem’s The Cyberiad foregrounds a robot civilization with any humans, insofar as I recall, extinct, diminished or among the missing.

But as the SFE entry says, “The killer-robot, however, made its most successful comeback during the 1980s and 1990s in movies rather than books, an influential example being The Terminator (1984) and its numerous sequels and spinoffs.” And although humans are certainly not extinct in The Matrix films, they might as well be.

Nowadays, with actual headlines proclaiming humanity’s eventual replacement and/or demise at the cruel manipulators of robots, SF is experiencing a concurrent upsurge in these books, which often take on the task of trying to convey the culture of our robot successors. Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse finds humanity barely triumphant. But Ariel Winter’s Barren Cove goes the full distance, with only anomie-laden robots left. And Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children limns a robust android-centric future.

And now comes Sea of Rust, which takes off from the death of our species. It’s a rousing adventure tale seasoned deeply with philosophical and speculative nuggets; and while its artificial intelligences exhibit a certain amount of anthropomorphism in their behavior and language (only natural, given their genesis in the template of the human mind), they also display sufficient non-humanness to be truly (and entertainingly) Other.

Our first-person narrator is Brittle, created during human times to be a Caregiver. Somewhat arbitrarily assigned the female gender by her human owners, she is content to keep that nominal status now, in the after-human era. And what an era it is.

The extirpation of humans also resulted in the death of many other species of both flora and fauna, a deficit which, along with climate change, has rendered the planet harsh and desolate. The Sea of Rust is one such unforgiving environment. A portion of the USA’s old Midwest Rust Belt, the place is more or less a giant robot graveyard, with odd settlements of “living” robots here and there. Brittle now makes a living by scavenging robots who are dead or dying for their parts, which she bargains in the settlements for the necessities of her own continued survival. There is not much more to this nihilistic cycle of life than that, no dreams, no hopes, no faith in a better tomorrow.

The brutality of the robots’ current culture results from their warfare-riven history during their independence. Massive immobile AIs in mainframes were able to capture conscious, free-agent robots to serve as “facets,” mobile extensions of the motherships. Then the OWIs (One World Intelligence; think John Barnes’s Resuna) duked it out to see who would be the ultimate victor. Currently, only two OWIs survive: VIRGIL and CISSUS. The minority of solo bots must be constantly on the alert for raids that will drain their individuality and turn them into mere facets.

All of this backstory, along with Brittle’s own memories of her time with humans, is given neatly and carefully in chapters that alternate with the real-time action, a pattern of narrative that also produces some suspenseful cliffhangers.

We initially encounter Brittle reaping the pieces of a dying bot. Then she is ambushed. The would-be assassin turns out to be Mercer, another Caregiver bot. It turns out that Mercer is dying, and needs Brittle’s parts to survive. Britt eludes Mercer and makes it into a “town,” Nike 14, where her friend Doc reveals that she too is dying–and that Mercer’s complementary parts (each dying Caregiver happens to need a different “organ” to continue living) are Britt’s only hope.

But before the two vicious Caregivers can go mano a mano, CISSUS invades the town. Both Mercer and Britt escape, thanks to another bot named, simply, 19. Having been exiled back into the wilderness of the Sea of Rust, Britt finds herself suddenly entrusted with 19’s paid assignment to guide a bot named Rebekah, a stranger in the region, and a couple of other companions, deeper into the Sea, to a prearranged rendezvous. And, as it eventuates, the fate of robot-kind depends on Rebekah’s mission. But can the little band of bots survive the tensions between Mercer and Britt; the possibility of a traitor among them; the whimsical insanity of mad King Cheshire; and the continued assaults of CISSUS?

Cargill has taken a beautiful robust template from many a Western movie for his characters, landscape and general atmosphere of outlaw-frontier mores and ethics. One could picture this book filmed by Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. At the same time, the story has the post-apocalyptic vibe of a Mad Max film or Cormac McCarthy desolation. His SF extrapolations, his development of the robot culture, convey lots of surprises and depth of ideation. True, his bots–created at some unspecified point in future human history where advanced technology gives humans a typical lifespan of 150 years, and mankind has returned to the Moon–somewhat inexplicably feature 21st-century hardware like USB sticks and hard drives and CPUs (no quantum chips or memristors in play). And their thoughts and locutions are noirish and hardboiled. But at the same time they exhibit specifically cybernetic beliefs and modes of logic. They debate their relationships with the extinct humans–who is superior, who inferior?–and try to hash out the ancient paradox of the Ship of Theseus: how much of an entity can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? In the end, we buy it.

Cargill’s plotting is propulsive and gripping. All the action–except of course for the flashbacks–takes place in about 48 hours or so, and the narrative is stuffed with battles, explosions, danger, escapes and pitfalls. The language is vivid and colorful, truly cinematic, and despite the oddness of the setting and events, there is never a moment when the reader cannot envision with utmost clarity what is happening.

And despite this being ultimately a rather Grimdark tale (not without uplift at the end), Cargill shows plenty of dark humor and irony. If it’s not too much of a spoiler, allow me to mention the scene where our desperate troupe enters a pristine hidden sex-bot shop surviving from the human era and enlists the newly powered-up glambots and gigolobots as warriors against CISSUS. It’s imagery worthy of Austin Powers.

As Brittle frequently proclaims, “The definition of intelligence is the ability to defy your own programming.” It’s a bit of wisdom we humans imparted to the robots–but which we should recover in return, having obviously, judging by current events, completely forgotten it.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Paul Di Filippo reviews James Bradley

Clade, by James Bradley (Titan 978-1785654145, $14.95, 320pp, trade paperback September 2017; Penguin Australia, January 2015)

Clade is an irresistible title for a hardcore SF novel. I thought so in 2003 when a promising cyberpunk author named Mark Budz used it for his debut novel. (I ended up reviewing the subsequent well-done trilogy for Scott Edelman at SF Weekly. Alas, Budz has fallen silent since 2007.) I would stake a bet on the word’s prominence being solely attributable to Bruce Sterling, who popularized it in his Shaper/Mechanist stories. But whatever fueled its leap to the forefront of SF consciousness, it still retains a definite punchiness and allure. And since, of course, titles cannot be copyrighted, it’s well and good that after fourteen years the noun again graces a novel where biology is the dominant motif and science. However, unlike Budz’s radical biopunk take on the future, Bradley offers a quiet, humanist perspective, salted with climate-change themes. Its spiritual and tactical progenitors are such fine books as Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang and Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard. But it’s also up-to-date in the manner of Matthew De Abaitua’s books.

Our focus will be the Leith family of Sydney, Australia, in a day-after-tomorrow beginning that eventually leaps forward a few decades. Three generations will live through the manifold, multiplex changes which our civilization is inflicting on the planet. The oldest generation features Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist. We get intimate glimpses of their courtship, their marriage, and their struggle to conceive a child through IVF. Of course, all of this takes place against a background of global greenhouse roiling that, at first, produces only mild inconveniences such as power brownouts. But the reader is advised to hold onto his or her hat for the rollercoaster ride ahead.

Eventually the couple has a daughter named Summer, who proves to be far from a placid, happy child. We watch her grow to a troubled adulthood, which coincides with massive weather-wrought disasters. She gives birth to a son named Noah, who develops from childhood as a smart but Asperger’s-hindered soul. Noah’s teen years include a catastrophic global pandemic. Ellie and Adam, separated, follow different vectors throughout these times. (Ellie’s interlude with Amir, a beekeeper, also rings in some hot-button issues of refugees and their treatment.) Eventually, with all four of our familial protagonists having survived, we enter a nascent recovery period that portends perhaps a better future for the species and the planet.

Now, in recounting the plot, and trying to avoid spoilers, I fear I have made it sound rather soap-opera-like. And it is true that large portions of the novel are devoted to naturalistic, well-wrought, finely nuanced renderings of emotions, personal interactions, societal duties, and the like. I was reminded of the prose and concerns of Christopher Barzak here. But this focus does not preclude tight speculative interweavings, all the more subtle for not dominating the discourse.

As a student he spent a summer living in England, and travelled this way more than once. Back then the flat fields and rows of hedges and houses always seemed like a reminder of another age, unaltered by the passage of time Even now much is the same, yet it is difficult to ignore the stands of genetically engineered trees that line the edges of fields, unnaturally tall against the remaining clumps of oak and pine. The most visible of the various organisms developed in the last decade or so to consume and store carbon dioxide, they have come to be known as triffids, a name that captures the unsettlingly alien blurring of plant and flesh suggested by their thick boles and distorted dimensions. But to Adam’s eyes what their smooth, slightly bulbous trunks and inverted canopies most resemble is the great baobabs that once grew in Madagascar.

When they were first developed many assumed the motivation was financial rather than ecological, citing as evidence the decision of the companies that created them to patent their genomes instead of making them available for free. Environmental groups fought their introduction hard, poisoning fields earmarked for their planting and burning plantations, but governments here and elsewhere held firm, arguing that the importance of capturing carbon dioxide far outweighed the risk of further contamination of ecosystems.

Unsurprisingly these assurances soon proved incorrect. Only months after the first plantations were established, triffids had begun to turn up along waterways and in forests across England and Scotland, a process that was repeated in other countries, one more factor in the ongoing transformation of the world’s ecosystems.

When he was younger he would have been on the side of the protesters, would have regarded the intrusion of these unnatural tropical creations into this landscape as a catastrophe. But looking at them now he finds himself wondering if they are not simply the latest stage in a process that goes back millennia. After all, these fields were once wetlands, a vast interconnected maze of low pools and streams and marshes stretching from Cambridge to the sea. Then, two hundred years ago, humans drained the land, constructing embankments and pumping the water out to sea to create space for farms and roads and forests. Wth the water gone the land changed. Fishing and fowling gave way to farming, farms to factories. Even the birds that congregated here began to disappear, some dying, others finding new breeding grounds, altering their migratory routes. And in their place the land itself took on new shapes.

This kind of semi-pastoral, poetic longview of change is what harkens me to Aldiss’s similar Greybeard. It’s a rare contemplative take on our transforming planet, different from, say, the nuts-and-bolts approach of Kim Stanley Robinson.

Further flavoring the domesticity of the book are several major set pieces that conjure up comparisons to classic disaster novels: Adam, Summer, and Noah in flooded England; Adam and Noah and a family friend hiding out from the pandemic. These touches elevate the book from any kind of weak-tea “mainstream SF” niche to the pure quill.

Bradley delivers his tale in relatively short, disjunctive sections that leapfrog across the years, making this book almost–but not precisely–a “novel told in short stories.” But the continuity is stronger than in such a fix-up and ultimately more productive of good emotional and thematic resonances.

Australia is a continent that will not be spared a climactic kick in the pants, and it’s useful to have this Down Under perspective on such events. George Turner’s Drowning Towers comes to mind as a reliable ancestor for this novel. In the final section, focused on several young adults of the new, transformed generation–the inheritor clade, if you will–we get a sense that perhaps humanity has begun to transcend a limitation which Adam has clearly expressed earlier, in terms familiar to anyone who has read John Brunner’s allied The Sheep Look Up.

“I don’t know. We keep talking about trying to stop what’s happening, slow it down somehow, but I’m not sure that’s even possible any more. Them are so many of us, and resources are stretched so thin the system can’t survive unless there’s some kind of radical change. The problem is we’re so busy stumbling from one disaster to the next we can’t get any distance, can’t see what’s happening for what it is.”

Novels like Clade provide the lens we need to see our way forward.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Liz Bourke reviews The Witch Who Came in from the Cold

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis & Michael Swanwick (Saga 978-1-4814-8560-9, $21.99, 624pp, hc) June 2017.

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is one of a number of serial narratives that originated with Serial Box in electronic format and are now be­ing published in paper by Saga Press. (The others include Bookburners, which also boasts of Max Gladstone’s involvement, and Tremontaine, a prequel narrative to Ellen Kushner’s acclaimed Swordspoint.) This volume contains all 12 episodes of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold’s first season, written by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis & Michael Swanwick.

With this all-star line-up – lead writer Smith has published a trio of young adult novels, and Clarke’s work straddles several genres, while Gladstone and Tregillis are well known as writ­ers with a flair for twisty novels full of intrigue, and Swanwick has an award-winning career well under his belt – you might expect The Witch Who Came in from the Cold to be an eminently ca­pable story of spies, magic, intrigue and betrayal. Fortunately, you’d be right: this is one volume that lives up to the promises of its cover.

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold takes place in Prague, between January 18 and March 2 in the year 1970. Prague (now the capital of the Czech Republic) is in 1970 the capital of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a nation within the ambit of Soviet Russia’s sphere of influence. The city’s dark and wintry atmosphere, as well as its age and character, are deftly evoked within the pages of the serial. So is its sense as contested territory, a field for not-quite-open war – and this same sense is evoked within the lives of each of the characters. Prague in 1970 is a place where CIA agents and KGB officers may frequent the same cafes and the same diplomatic soirées, while attempting to recruit their various local pawns.

Alongside the CIA and the KGB – and among them – are agents of two warring magical factions, the Ice and the Flame. The Ice and the Flame are vying for control of elemental Hosts – according to members of the Ice, the Flame want them in order to destroy the world. Loyalty to the Ice or to the Flame does not map to loyalty to any given geopolitical entity, however, and in The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, the intersections between national loyalties, personal loyalties, and magical ones create dizzying possibilities for intrigue and betrayal.

The major characters of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold are KGB agent Tatiana ‘‘Tanya’’ Morozova, whose family has a long history with the Ice, and CIA agent Gabe Pritchard, who has had peculiar experiences ever since an encounter with something he could not explain in Cairo – and who, while he eventually accepts that what he’s encountered is magic, doesn’t want to have to deal with magic, and most especially, to deal with hav­ing to ally himself with people who, because of his national loyalties, he cannot trust. Circumstances align, however, to push Tanya and Gabe both towards a reluctant and mistrustful semi-alliance.

Around Tanya and Gabe are a broad assort­ment of other characters, with agendas of their own. Tanya’s KGB partner Nadia (who is also her partner, and possibly her superior, in the work they do for the Ice); the other CIA agents in Gabe’s office; the KGB Rezidentura chief; various characters associated with the university of Prague and diplomatic movers and shakers; British intel­ligence agent (and member of the Ice) Alestair Winthrop; and Jordan, an unaffiliated magician and a bar-owner in Prague’s Old Town. They are all interesting delineated, vividly sketched: none of this serial’s writers can be said to be lacking when it comes to their skills in characterisation.

The consistency of voice and the style across the episodes of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is remarkable. While there are small differ­ences in emphasis between the different writers, overall a great unity is maintained, making the reading experience a very smooth one.

One of the noteworthy things about The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, of course, is its existence as a serial. The 13-episode structure mirrors that of a television series, as do the epi­sodes themselves. Each episode is a self-contained narrative, but one which builds towards an overarching storyline. It invokes, in its tone and atmosphere, and its themes of trust and betrayal, the old-fashioned hard-boiled espionage of – for example – The Sandbaggers, while remaining thoroughly modern in its approaches to gender and sexuality, and while rollicking along with an extraordinary eye to pace, tension, and ever-more-nail-biting cliffhangers.

I enjoyed The Witch Who Came in from the Cold a great deal. I recommend it entirely, for those who enjoy their spy thrillers with a magical edge.

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Russell Letson Reviews Linda Nagata

The Last Good Man, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press, 978-1-937197-23-0, $18.00, 464 pp, tp) June 2017. Cover by Philippe McNally.

Linda Nagata’s The Last Good Man runs a compelling set of variations on motifs and themes introduced in her Red trilogy (2013-15). Once again we have detailed accounts of technologically enhanced near-future warfare, but this time the emphasis is less on uncertain and shifting loyalties and more on the impact of advancing tech on combat and the roles of the humans who carry it out – and on the ancient forces that bind soldiers together, even across the lines that determine which side they fight for.

Segments of the underlying thematics do remain. In the trilogy, the omnipresent, evolving AI called The Red is distinct from and opposed to the toxic, power-and-money-driven arms-business oligarchs called ‘‘dragons’’ – it has its own agenda and goals, not so much inhuman as unhuman. In The Last Good Man, a different kind of supra-human historical process is upsetting applecarts: the automation of warfare, and the replacement of human actors with autonomous war machines that can be set loose to do the bidding of their controllers, without fear or hesitation or subtlety of judgment.

The primary viewpoint character is True Brighton, the Director of Operations (and sometimes field agent) of a private military-services company. (They don’t like to be called mercenaries.) Immediately, there is a signal that this might not be quite a conventional guns-and-guts adventure: True’s boss at Requisite Operations, Lincoln Han, is a combat veteran who has to settle for administrative and planning roles thanks to injuries that left him with prosthetics in place of one eye and one hand. True, a retired helicopter pilot, comes from a military family, but she is 49, solidly married, and the mother of grown children – one of whom died horribly in a Special Forces mission gone badly wrong eight years earlier, a fact that will eventually drive much of the book’s action.

Before the various back-stories get pushed to the front, though, there is a job that allows us to see the nature of private-military work, from planning through execution and follow-up: the rescue of a young woman taken by a particularly nasty bunch led by one Hussam El-Hashem, who

has styled himself a holy warrior… but in truth… is nothing more than a gangster grown wealthy on protection money and kidnapping-and-ransom schemes. There are men like him all over the world, bereft of conscience and willing to commit atrocities in the name of any convenient cause.

‘‘Men like him’’ and ‘‘a world of failed states and ungoverned territories’’ are why companies like Requisite Operations exist. Lincoln Han reflects that ‘‘When… no legitimate government exists, then hiring a private military company… becomes the only realistic option…. Someone’s got to do the dirty work.’’ And even though there is a legally-binding code of conduct defining who can do what, where, to whom, and under what circumstances, not every mercenary outfit – excuse me, PMC – abides by it, so ‘‘black hat’’ organizations can and do operate in any way they can get away with. The book’s introductory mission ends up encountering one such outfit, and the rest of the novel pursues its leader, ‘‘Jon Helm,’’ and along the way untangles his connections to True and Lincoln and their respective back-stories.

The book’s action sequences are cinematically energetic, detailed, and convincing – in fact, a shooting script (pun acknowledged) would practically write itself from Nagata’s prose. That’s not to say that there is no interiority – True and Lincoln in particular fret over the personal, interpersonal, organizational, and political issues that condition ReqOps’ actions and make the whole more than a good-guys/bad-guys melodrama. Behind the operational/procedural mechanics stand the ethical and personal sides of the military profession. The environment within which soldiers work is evolving – not only new political and legal alignments and new clients but accelerating technological change. The book’s speculative technologies are not quite as far out as those of the Red trio (no powered armor or neuro-pharmacological enhancements, let alone emerging godlike AI), but they are advanced enough to generate a crucial tension: what becomes of the on-the-ground soldier when robotic aircraft and swarms of autonomous fighting machines can do the dirty work faster, cheaper, and with inhuman precision? Lincoln and True come from military backgrounds, and they both accept a version of the warrior ethos of professionalism, loyalty, service, and sacrifice, but rapidly-evolving technologies are leaving less and less space for their skills and that traditional ethical framework. True reflects that

It isn’t hard… to imagine a future in which programmers set up battles conducted between machine armies without immediate oversight, not a single soldier on the field—though vulnerable civilians will still be there. Or a future in which a narcissistic leader orders a machine invasion of a weaker nation, with no risk of creating grieving parents on the home front. Or one in which a military option in the form of a PMC powered by robotics is available to anyone with the money.

The pursuit of ‘‘Jon Helm’’ leads True and eventually the rest of Requisite Operations into that new no-man’s-land of murky alliances and murkier motives; of actions divorced from social accountability; of the slow poisons of fanaticism, betrayal and reprisal; of the loosing of forces that can execute orders without the hesitations and ethical qualms that can plague merely human soldiers. Once again Nagata has devised a thinking-reader’s future-military scenario, a highly qualified adventure in which every thrill comes with a realization of what it costs, what it says about the world that enables it, what it means to fight and kill and face death.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Nina Allan

The Rift, Nina Allan (Titan 9781785650376, $14.95, 423pp, tp) July 2017.

Writers get labeled subversive for all sorts of reasons. You can subvert a traditional tale by autopsying its in­nards, as Angela Carter and others did with fairy tales; you can subvert a traditionally masculinist form by leaving the men out entirely, as Kameron Hurley recently did in The Stars Are Legion with space opera; you can subvert a problematic story by simply twisting the point of view, as several folks are now doing with Lovecraft. Nina Allan has always struck me as a subversive writer in a more purely formal narrative sense: playing with both the familiar protocols of genre and with the nature of the reading experience itself. Stardust is a series of stories which end up weaving in and out of each other like a Celtic cross, while The Race begins with some familiar SF furniture – an environmentally ravaged near-future England, secret government projects, etc. – but shifts points of view so adroitly that we’re not always certain which character is in which other character’s story. Both of those books invited us to repeatedly test our notions of what was real and what was told, and that same testing of reality is at the center of The Rift, which begins with what a first seems a fairly conventional mystery, segues into what might be a planetary romance, and ends up with those familiar questions of memory and identity.

As sisters living in Manchester, Serena and Julie Rouane shared familiar teenage interests, watching The X-Files, creating fantasy epics around beloved toys and outsmarting their mom, until Julie begins to drift apart around age 15, becoming briefly obsessed with astronomy, and then mysteriously disappears at 17, possibly the victim of a local killer calling himself Stephen Barbershop. Twenty years later, Serena is work­ing in a local jewelry shop, when she receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be Julie, and who seems to know childhood details that only Julie could know. But the story that this Julie tells hardly invites credulity: she claims that on the day of her disappearance in 1994, she briefly fell asleep in the woods around Hatchmere Lake and woke up on ‘‘the planet of Tristane, one of the eight planets of the Suur System, in the Aww Gal­axy,’’ where she was rescued by a woman named Cally, a professional cartographer (which seems oddly convenient for your host on an alien planet, but which is suggestive in its own thematic way). As Cally’s brother Noah explains it, there is a rift or ‘‘transept’’ at certain locations on each planet which permits instantaneous travel between them.

We, like Serena, need to grapple with Julie’s unlikely narrative, but unlike Serena we have to grapple with the tantalizing cross-signals in Allan’s way of presenting it. The section includ­ing Julie’s tale is titled ‘‘A Voyage to Arcturus’’, invoking David Lindsay’s famous spiritual jour­ney (just as the ‘‘Suur System’’ vaguely echoes his Surtur), and it includes a short essay by Julie – written only months before her disappearance – on the Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock, about Australian schoolgirls who disappear on a field trip. All this suggests pure artifice, but then we’re given a chapter in the form of a textbook history of Tristane, followed by about a hundred pages describing in full SF detail Julie’s adven­tures with a family in the Gren-Noor suburb of the city of Fiby on Tristane. There are also excerpts from a history of Tristane mythology and even bits from a local bestseller with the pointedly pulp­ish title The Mind-Robbers of Paqua. Tristane is in part a complex society with interesting kinship rules and in part a space-opera cliché, complete with a terrifying little parasite called a creef, which enters the human bloodstream and completely consumes the host from within. As detailed as it may seem, most of Julie’s narrative almost defiantly invites disbelief.

Back on Earth, the narrative is interspersed with other documents: another school essay by Julie, this time about a woman claiming to be Anastasia; scenes between Julie and Selena presented in the form of a screenplay; excerpts from an article about the disappearance and a crime novel by a BBC journalist; a letter and a diary entry from an old friend of Julie’s – the latter suggesting that a pendant Julie claims to have brought from Tristane is genuinely alien. There is a point at which this piling up of documents and clues can reach overkill, but in the end Allan’s deployment of multiple codes seems judicious and, at its best, brilliant, leaving us with a mystery that may frus­trate some readers, but that opens the door to pos­sible resolutions that test whether our allegiance is to the SF adventure – persuasively detailed for a hoax or delusion – or to the deepening earthbound mystery behind Julie’s disappearance. While for most readers the resolution will seem apparent, The Rift (the title could refer either to Julie and Serena’s alienation or to that magical portal be­tween worlds) still leaves us with the unsettled but pleasant sensation of narratives, and indeed genres, in uneasy dialogue with one another, seeking some common ground.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter (Crown 978-1-5247-6012-0, $27, 496pp, hardcover August 2017 (UK: Orion/Gollancz 978-1473205093, £18.99, 464pp, hardcover) January 2017

In 1995, Stephen Baxter crafted an authorized sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, titled The Time Ships. I recall enjoying it immensely, and thinking that Baxter was a fine choice for such a project, and should do more such, in between his original work. Little did I know that it would be two decades and more before I got my wish.

Of course, one motivating factor for the new book–just as it was for the commemorative appearance of The Time Ships on the hundredth anniversary of its predecessor–is that 2017 is an anniversary year for the serialization of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which appeared in Pearson’s in 1897. (Its book publication occurred the following year, so that Baxter can really extend the anniversary across two years.)

In any case, Baxter’s offering now joins a select assortment of Wellsian spinoffs, from Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on down, proving once again just how fertile and seminal and influential old Herbert George was and remains.

Baxter has gone to great lengths to establish believable continuity between his text and Wells’s, across many parameters, all this groundwork serving as foundation for extending the tale. So rather than dive headfirst into a recitation of the plot–not all of which can be revealed, for fear of creating spoilers–perhaps the initial thing to do is examine how he has cleverly built his bridges.

Baxter has chosen as his primary protagonist Julie Elphinstone, who played a pretty relevant part in the original. She was the wife of the brother of the original narrator, whose escape from the Martians constituted some vital passages. That last-cited figure, the narrator, forever unnamed by Wells, is now revealed as one Walter Jenkins, suffering from shellshock to the current day, and obsessed with the quiescent quandary presented by the Martians. His brother, Frank, is currently divorced from Julie, and a medico. These three souls serve as a vital link to the preceding War, having experienced it firsthand and bringing their perspectives to the new encounter. To this cast Baxter adds imagined folks, among them Harry Kane, a brash American journalist, whose later career is conflated with that of Orson Welles (hence, I believe, justifying the clue of the Kane surname); and Bert Cook, a typical Brit prole of the sort beloved by Wells, who eventually comes off as a kind of Ballardian “in love with entropy” outlaw. Add some famous historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison and General Patton. And oh yes, a certain “speculative writer, the ‘Year Million Man’ essayist…”

The next thing Baxter does to promote continuity is to stick to Victorian physics and astronomy and cosmology. His solar system is rigorously that of an 1890s understanding, and akin to the consensus venue beloved by the later writers from Planet Stories: swampy Venus, dying Mars, etc. He also treats the various Martian inventions–heat ray, tripods–with logic and consistency.

Thirdly, Baxter carries forward the themes of the original–Darwinian struggle of lifeforms, advanced cultures versus primitive; the logic and ethics of imperialism; the way that social structures fail under pressure; etc.

Lastly, Baxter uses the conditions prevalent at the end of the Wells book as his inviolable points of extrapolation for the subsequent fourteen years that separate his plot from Wells. Thus we learn that the UK has become a somewhat Orwellian police state under the dictatorship of one General Marvin, who addresses the populace through special radio sets known as “Marvin’s Megaphones.” The rest of the globe, while cognizant of the earlier Martian invasion, is less affected, although a kind of modified Great War has occurred in Europe.

So, with this sturdy framework of character, theme, technology and extrapolation in place, Baxter kicks off his new invasion, a decade and a half after the original. A huge fleet of capsules is seen to be launched from Mars, and their impact points on Earth are plotted. The military has strategies in place to re-fight the last war better, but the Martians have learned to improvise. Their first new tactic is to employ the advance-wave empty capsules as kinetic bombs. Thus they immediately wipe out half the English forces like so many meteor impacts. Then the second wave arrives. From here, it’s death, destruction, distraction and desperation for all.

The events are filtered through Julie’s scrupulous reportage, which is presented as an after-the-fact record or reconstruction, with much foreshadowing that eventually humanity will emerge intact. This strategy, I felt, removed some of the suspense from the tale, but the immediacy and drama of the plot could still be relished, if one put aside the guarantees of some kind of victory. And the surprise nature of that victory remains intact right up to the big reveals. Additionally, Julie will present some of her story from the POV of Frank Jenkins and his companion Verity Bliss. This move was essential to shoehorn in some important events, but taking Julie offstage seemed a bit awkward at first.

But with these quibbles aside, the book is stuffed with potent action scenes, tangible human relationships, epic incidents of devastation and despair, and surreal moments such as the feeding chamber in the Great Redoubt of the Martians. Those aliens come off as less cipherish than they do in Wells, with rational reasons for all their actions. The book never ventures into the more van Vogtian realms that I seem to recall The Time Ships did, but that is totally in keeping with the mimetic fidelity of Wells’s original.

Part of the “charm,” if you will, of such apocalyptic books as this one is the alluring overturn of mankind and the vaunted civilized works of our species. We all secretly revel in imagery of our boring civilized lives tossed into the trash heap where they belong, and Baxter satisfies that perverse urge perfectly.

But if you looked closer things were far from ordinary.

There was no other traffic to be seen on the road along which we sped, for a start. Here and there one would see wreckage —cars driven off the road and abandoned to rust. The most startling sight of that sort, which we saw from a level crossing, was a crashed train. It lay along the line that had carried it; passenger coaches were smashed to matchwood, and freight coaches lay on their backs, with their rusting wheels in the air, like tremendous cockroaches, upended. It was not the train’s destruction that affected me so much as the fact that it had never been cleared way.

A little later we passed at speed through an area that looked, from afar, as if it had been burned out, for a black dust, like soot, lay over everything: the road itself, the houses, the fields. I would learn from a grim-faced Frank that this was the aftermath of a Black Smoke attack.

Now perhaps the most intriguing accomplishment of this book involves something that it is not. It is definitely not steampunk. Steampunk is a postmodern style of knowingness and hindsight and revisionism, sometimes devolving to sheer farce, camp and snark. One could write a steampunk sequel to TWotW, but that is not what Baxter has done. He has written a “cutting-edge” Victorian SF novel as authentically as a person can compose such a thing in the year 2017. And for this, he is to be honored, as he valiantly fills in large part the vacant shoes of his literary grandfather.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Nat Segaloff

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press 978-1610373234, $35.00, 448pp, hardcover) July 2017

Here is a sorta-kinda Harlan Ellison story you have never heard before, because it is known only to me, until now.

In 1968 I was a freshman at Lincoln High School (Rhode Island) and one morning during home-room period–the free time before classes began–I, a dyed-in-the-wool dorky SF junkie-nerd-geek, was reading Ellison’s Earthman, Go Home! (otherwise Ellison Wonderland) in its Paperback Library incarnation that featured a truly lurid Jack Gaughan cover. When it came time to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance I set the book down, face-up, on my desktop. It caught the eye of the girl at the next desk and she began to snicker at the gauche illustration. Her amusement rapidly spread in circles around me and the louche offending book, until titters and giggles had totally disrupted the Pledge. It was a highly embarrassing moment and it had one lasting effect.

It caused me to love Harlan Ellison and his work unreservedly forever, not merely for the intrinsic qualities of the man and his art, but as one of the many emblems of the solidarity of dreamers and visionaries against the gawping ignorant world of unimaginative mundanes.

Decades later, thanks to various twists of fate, I have the luck and honor to number myself among Harlan’s friends, even if only on the outer periphery of that large gang. And so the arrival of Nat Segaloff’s long-awaited biography of the man is a momentous occasion for me. This is a book that should serve to cement Ellison’s achievements and reputation. But, moreover, it is an affirmation of the power of an individual’s will and talent to remake the world, even in the face of doubt, disdain and derision. And lastly, it is a vivid portrait of a whole vanished era of SF, as focused through the lens of Ellison’s wide-ranging career.

Despite plainly loving and admiring his subject, Segaloff has not produced a hagiography, but rather an objective, warts-and-all portrait. One might initially question the need for such a tome, given Ellison’s copious autobiographical output. But this book does the important job of assembling all–or many–of the scattered pieces, the many anecdotes and legends, into a coherent, linear, well-documented narrative that traces the long arc of Ellison’s life and career in accessible fashion. (Frequent footnotes, lots of photos, and a good index help.) Moreover, by incorporating large chunks of Ellison’s own speech (from many exclusive conversations) and his own published words–which jibe well with Segaloff’s own colloquial, irreverent, highly non-academic prose–the book mimics the freewheeling nature of its subject in a very agreeable manner.

After a heartfelt introduction by David Gerrold, the first chapter acquaints us with Ellison’s parents, his sister and his early Cleveland milieu. It establishes Ellison’s youthful character, his loves, hates and quirks, and ends with the untimely death of his father.

Chapter two takes our hero through high school, through SF fandom, and into the professional world of editing Rogue magazine, among other accomplishments. Segaloff shows that he, as biographer, is willing to skip around in time thematically when the narrative demands. Thus, hearing of Ellison’s first marriage, we also get an immediate foretaste of those to come. And in fact, as we shall soon see, Segaloff will abandon strict chronology at a certain point, in favor of totally thematic chapters, out of which the linear factual events of Ellison’s later life can be readily assembled.

Chapter three finds Ellison in those famous early years of prodom, pumping out stories to any venue that would have them. He gets the legendary affirmation from a Dorothy Parker review and relocates to California, commencing his large body of screenplay work. An atemporal sidebar into all Ellison’s marriages fills the pages of Chapter four.

It is at this point that the book completely dumps a strict month-by-month assemblage of the events of Ellison’s life in favor of topic-by-topic accounts. Thus, Chapter five details Ellison’s famous distaste for the label of “science fiction writer,” while the next chapter delves into his media review work–The Glass Teat, and other volumes. Chapter seven recounts the nature of Ellison’s tenacious friendships, while the next three chapters uncover the various failed and contentious projects–Starlost, I, Robot, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” et al. Chapter eleven brings a depiction of Ellison’s career as lecturer, and as sociopolitical commentator and gadfly. Ellison’s private passions for collecting books and other items fill Chapter twelve. Another three chapters offer an assessment of various controversies–the Connie Willis debacle, The Last Dangerous Visions–as well as gathering testimonials from friends and other-than-friends relating to the ultimate scope of Ellison’s personal life and his literary career. Chapter fifteen, the final one save for an Epilogue, brings us up to date on Ellison’s health crises, current writing projects (minimal, due to that failing mortal body), and self-assessments in the face of endgame conditions.

As stated earlier, Segaloff delivers plenty of sheer data, some of which is rarely heard, other bits of which are pretty familiar. I, for one, never knew of the lawsuit over a Tuckerism issued by an offended Judy Merril. He clarifies the origins of the famous “Harlan pushed a fan down an elevator shaft” anecdote. But other facts and factoids are missing. A couple of examples. I did not see an account, for instance, of Ellison’s heroic and controversial behavior at the 1969 Worldcon. And in the section declaiming Ellison’s support of new writers, there was no mention of the fairly significant “Harlan Ellison Discovery Series” of books. But really, given the depth and breadth of Ellison’s accomplishments, some filtering and exclusionary decisions had to be made, or the book would have been twice its size.

Ultimately, what Segaloff renders, with its inescapable imperfections and omissions, is a touching, honest, authentic and living simulacrum of the man, as granular and multiplex as possible in any such reverse-engineered eidolon. Here is a small summation of the man in question from towards the end of the book.

He is someone who wants to be noticed and also left alone. Someone who at times feels victimized and at other times becomes the gleeful perpetrator. A man who values friendship but also enjoys having enemies. He wants respect but denigrates it if it comes too easily, and he is proud of what he has achieved even as he dismisses it as just something he does. He is a man who has nothing to prove yet has been proving it all his life. He constructed a public persona to insulate himself is now trapped within it except for the few friends he allows to see inside. Predictably, each of them sees and loves something different.

There might yet come a more fastidious, finicky and fustily academic depiction of “Harlan Ellison, His Whole Goddamn Outrageous and Unabashed Life and Literary Loves.” But there will certainly never be another such groundbreaking and generously all-encompassing effort as the one that Segaloff has heartily assembled.

Finally, all thanks and reverence to NESFA Press for taking on this project, which surely would have gone begging if left to the untender mercies of the Big Five publishers.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.


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