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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.

Liz Bourke reviews Jack Campbell

Vanguard, Jack Campbell (Ace 978-1101988343, $27.00, 327pp, hc) May 2017.

Jack Campbell’s long-running The Lost Fleet series (11 novels, soon to be continued in comic form) has already spawned a spin-off in the form of the quartet of books that form The Lost Stars (Tarnished Knight, Perilous Shield, Imperfect Sword, and Shattered Spear). Now he begins a fresh spin-off series, The Genesis Fleet, with Vanguard.

Vanguard is set at a point in time long before the events of The Lost Fleet. It is clear from the novel’s beginning that Campbell has set out to tell the story of the foundation of the Alliance, the polity to which most of the characters in The Lost Fleet belonged. These are the early days of human expansion across different star systems: the discovery of wormholes and the development of wormhole travel has permitted the ever-more-rapid colonisation of new planets and new parts of space.

Campbell’s approach to the social dynamics of increasing colonisation reminds me vaguely of half-remembered Jerry Pournelle novels I read in my pre-teen years, or the Michael Z. Williamson novel of which I have a faint memory from nigh on 15 years ago: the ‘‘good’’ colonists are trying to escape the ossified bureaucracy (I’d like to see anyone run complex systems without a decently sized bureaucracy) and entrenched time-serving caution of the Old Colonies to start a fresh life, while the bad ones, who are extorting and attack­ing people left, right, and centre, are generally assumed to be criminals from Mars. (Mars is here categorised as a lawless hellhole, run by vicious gangs and petty tyrants: a simplistic vision of a ‘‘failed’’ state.) Questions of power and privilege are simplified to the very basics. Campbell is not, however, anything like as anti-communitarian as the above-named authors: government bodies here are presented as made up of a mix of people, with their own flaws, and the protagonists are all invested in having functioning governments to look out for the welfare of the people.

Campbell’s not interested in really looking at the logistics or the ecological ethics of expanding human colonisation: adapting Earth lifeforms to different biomes, preserving genetic diversity or the economic rational by which very new colonies have a lot, proportionally speaking, of passing space traffic. He’s primarily interested in getting to the action.

There are four viewpoint characters in Vanguard. Robert Geary is a former Naval lieutenant who joined the new colony of Glenlyon because he felt stifled in his previous role. Mele Darcy is a former Marine sergeant who was encouraged to leave her previous career because when she got bored, she made trouble. Carmen Ochoa is a former Earth conflict resolution specialist, origi­nally from Mars, who wants to prevent the kind of conflict she’s seen on Earth from wracking the new colonies. And Lochan Nakamura is a former politician who believes himself a failure, and wants a fresh start unburdened by the past.

Rob Geary is pressed into service when Glen­lyon is threatened by a warship from Scatha, demanding ‘‘protection’’ money. He has to lead what space-based forces Glenlyon can scare up, capture a warship, and defend his new home – while denied any permanent official standing by his government.

Darcy and Lochan meet when stranded on a space station whose authorities are colluding in an extortion racket. Between them, Darcy and Lochan manage to rescue their fellow passengers from being sold off as forced labour, and hold out until another spaceship can pick them up. Aboard that spaceship is Carmen Ochoa, on her way to the somewhat more established colony of Kosatka. Lochan and Carmen strike up a friendship, and eventually a professional partnership aimed at resolving incipient conflicts in the region of space. Meanwhile, Darcy continues on to Glenlyon, where she arrives just as the government there is faced with a need for someone who knows how ground combat works – Scatha has dropped an ille­gal civilian colony near Glenlyon’s first settlement, but the civilian colony comes complete with troops in battle armour and ground-to-orbit weaponry, and no one on Glenlyon believes than Scatha will stop short of Glenlyon’s complete subjugation.

While the narrative strands of Darcy on the ground and Rob in space parallel each other and work together, Lochan and Carmen do not tie in to any significant dramatic conclusion. This reader therefore concludes that Campbell is a) not great at writing narratives that stand alone and b) is definitely setting up another series after the previous model.

When it comes to storytelling, Campbell isn’t getting any more imaginative. On the other hand, Vanguard shows a little improvement in characterisation: while no one has anything that you could really describe as an emotional arc (or character growth), there’s a greater variety of char­acter types here, and I hold out hope that someday Campbell will demonstrate a consistent ability to write three-dimensional characters.

Honestly, at this point, no one reads a Campbell novel for anything other than the space/battle-action. So where does Vanguard fall on the action spectrum?

It’s not as full of fleet action as Campbell’s previ­ous series. Three is the largest number of ships in combat at any one time – and one of those ships is a transport. But it has a fair amount of daring escapades, boarding actions, ground combat, and Carmen Ochoa foiling an assassin attempt by the badass skills learned during her (dramatically awful Martian) youth. All in all, Vanguard might be light on the literary merits (and thematically slight), but it is entertainingly full of explosions. If you enjoyed his previous work, you’ll like this one, too.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Russell Letson reviews Kit Reed

Mormama, Kit Reed (Tor 978-0-7653-9044-8. $25.99, 285pp, hc) May 2017.

Kit Reed’s previous novel, Where (2015) gave us an inexplicable and uncanny situation that finally (perhaps reluctantly) almost-but-not-quite collapses into a science-fictional genre-space. Her new book, Mormama, isn’t coy at all: it’s a straight-up ghost story, and everybody inside the story knows it, and in any case the ghost for whom the novel is named is right there to certify everything, including (eventually) the reason for the haunting.

Once again, there are echoes of neo-Faulknerian southern gothic, but set in a rundown section of Jacksonville FL, where a decaying mansion, a shrine to the stifling proprieties and status-chasing of the Old South, sits right next to the tatty con­venience stores and drug corners of the New. The cast is multi-generational, and the half-dozen viewpoints include the living and the dead. First-person narrators Leah and her twelve-year-old son Theo, abandoned and impoverished by Leah’s absconding husband, have come to Jacksonville to claim an inheritance that will allow them to restart their lives. Third-person ‘‘Dell,’’ currently homeless, doesn’t know who he really is or why he had a Jacksonville address on an index card in his pocket – or a flash drive hidden in his shoe – on ‘‘the day the doctors cleared him’’ following the accident that left him amnesiac. All three wind up at 553 May Street, home to a trio of ancient sisters: the squabbling twins Iris and Rosemary and crippled Ivy in her electric scooter. There’s a fourth family member and major narrator: the spirit of the sisters’ late grandmother, derisively nicknamed Mormama because long ago, when household leadership skipped over her in favor of her daughter Manette, the family had ‘‘[o]ne more mama than we need.’’

The present action is not quite a plot: Lane, Theo, and then Dell arrive at May Street. Dell sets up a secret squat under a porch and observes everyone. Lane finds her inheritance spent and is stuck living with her aunts until she can find a job and escape. Theo discovers Mormama and Dell. Snoopy men in black come around looking for Dell. Dell tries to figure out who he is and why he has come to this place. These events constitute a line on which to string the various pieces of ante­cedent action, and as much as one might wonder what will become of the younger people, it is the piecemeal revelation of family history, of the forces behind Mormama’s haunting, that drives the book.

While mysteries, unanswered questions, and concealed family scandals abound, there’s noth­ing secret or subtle about the house’s most active haunter – everybody knows she is there. Like many a traditional ghost, Mormama has a dreadful story and a warning to deliver, but unlike some, she’s pretty up-front about it. Her storytelling, however, isn’t always linear, so we get it in out-of-sequence chunks. Here’s Theo’s introduction to her ways:

In the dark, in this awful house, Mormama speaks to me. She comes in the night. When she’s in a good mood, she plants herself at the end of the bed and tells stories….

She can’t stop telling it and I can’t get her to go away.

When she’s in a bad mood, she hangs in the air so close that it creeps me out and says shitty things. Boys are not welcome in this house. It isn’t safe!

Theo is a smart, resilient kid, and although he initially finds Mormama’s cold, looming presence scary, she eventually becomes merely intrusive and annoying rather than terrifying, and he even dares to sass her. Not that it makes the restless shade back off even a little, and she continues her warnings, interspersed with tales of the unhappy lives of her immediate family.

Other family members, living and dead, have their say as well, via memories, flashbacks, and unearthed diaries. Disabled, put-upon, and sometimes-ignored Ivy drifts in and out of the present, missing her long-vanished brother Ran­dolph, whose diary fills in his part in the family drama, and yet other diaries add to the catalogue of estrangement, abandonment, betrayal, flight, exile, and death that have shaped (and diminished) the household.

The shabby, claustrophobic house, stuck in a lost time, is a projection of the ambitions and vanity of Manette, a stage on which the generational drama plays out, and a locus for malign forces. As the fragments of the back-story connect, it’s clear that something even stranger than a haunting is going on at 553 May Street. (How old are these living-fossil aunts, anyway?) And, of course, the pieces eventually assemble and converge on a revelation and a dramatic climax – a reveal that, when it came, still surprised me, even as I thought, ‘‘Yes, of course, that fits perfectly.’’

To pick up a thread from the lede of this review: Reed is here (re)working the possibilities of contra-realist fiction. If Where operates in a post­modern area between SF and the naked fantastic – impossible events presented without an explicit explanatory, rationalizing, or familiarizing genre framework – then Mormama takes the path of tradition, deploying tropes and conventions whose pedigrees run from the gothic novel to Algernon Blackwood’s ‘‘The Willows’’ to Poltergeist and Stephen King’s The Shining. The power of Reed’s elaboration of these materials comes from the layering of a chorus of voices that reveal the hor­rors of personal, familial, and social pathologies: of snobbery, acquisitiveness, and monumental vanity, mirrored and reinforced by a social environ­ment that runs on a toxic mix of privilege, public refinement, and propriety that conceals private selfishness and cruelty – the hungry vacuum of a soul that knows only Me and Mine. Ghosts are scary, but that kind of bottomless, banal egotism shrivels and kills the soul. Or worse, preserves it.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews James Patrick Kelly

Mother Go, by James Patrick Kelly (Audible Studios B071LJTF1V, $29.95, audiobook) July 11, 2017

There are two exciting, out-of-the-ordinary aspects to the newest publication from James Patrick Kelly.

Of primary interest and importance is this: Mother Go constitutes his first novel since the appearance of Wildlife in 1994. To belabor the obvious math, that’s a gap of twenty-three years. Science fiction and the world at large have undergone about a dozen revolutions since then, so it will be extremely intriguing to see how Kelly’s work reflects a generation of changes. Of course, the man has hardly been silent all that time, producing scores of fine, award-winning stories and editing several anthologies, as well as contributing his regular column to Asimov’s. So we already have a basic idea of his ongoing development and techniques, his interests and his ability to stay cutting-edge. But not at novel lengths.

The second distinctive matter about this publication is that it is an Audible Original: in other words, the Amazon-owned Audible Studios is serving as first-edition publisher. The debut format in which Kelly’s words will be available arrives through their audiobook platform. A print version will not appear until a six-month window of exclusivity is over.

This fresh approach to debuting a book is not unprecedented. I myself participated earlier in such a project: Gardner Dozois’s original anthology titled Rip-Off! in 2012. But it is definitely the road less traveled, and Kelly–who has been a pioneer in this oral/aural mode from way back–deserves credit for his willingness to try something different to reach his audience.

All that said, I should also mention that my review is based on good old silent words-in-a-PDF, not the actual recording, so I cannot comment on the sonic qualities of Mother Go. But I assume they are on a par with Audible’s other high-level deluxe productions.

The first thing to note about this novel is its division into tasty bite-sized segments, each headed with a resonant phrase, that are not structured quite like traditional chapters, but rather almost like compact vignettes linked tail to head. They foster a good linear narrative, a strong plot, but also advance the tale in somewhat staccato fashion, which is consistent with both the jumpy, somewhat skittish and hopscotching mentality of our protagonist, and also with the sharp twists and turns of her space odyssey. It’s a fine union of form and function and theme.

Our tale opens in the year 2159, on the well-settled Moon. We immediately meet our heroine, Mariska Volochkova, a fifteen-year-old immersed in the standard preoccupations of her age and era. Taking her academic lessons; tending hydroponics; learning to adapt to mind feeds (direct person-to-person transmissions into the brain); figuring out what she feels for her tentative boyfriend Jak. But Mariska’s situation is far from normal. She is the clone of Natalya Volochkova, a legendary “spacer” who long-ago embarked on an exploratory mission through an artificial wormhole to a distant galaxy of the hypothesized Builders of the wormhole. This oddball legacy status leaves Mariska deracinated and adrift. And now that her “mother” has returned, with startling news about a habitable planet, and plans to reassert her parenthood, Mari’s destiny feels even more out of control. So she does the only thing she can think of: she activates her genetic legacy that allows her to hibernate, sans exterior aids, rationalizing that if she can stay under for just a year, she will emerge as a legal, sixteen-year-old adult, able to shape her own life.

But instead, three years inadvertently pass and Mari’s recovery is dicey. Awakened, she finally confronts her mother and learns that Natalya wishes to return to the Builders’ Galaxy and start a colony, taking Mariska with her. Mariska rebels, and here follows a series of thrilling and unpredictable adventures that chronicle her maturation and struggles. These exploits notably include being a crew member on a rustbucket transport ship whose safe return to port is not guaranteed.

Eventually, Mariska’s destiny bends towards that of her mother, and she finds herself learning the spacer ropes on Mars. The eventual complicated launch of the colony ship Natividad involves much conspiratorial derring-do, in the face of a faction known as Firsters, who wish to conserve precious resources for the home solar system.

Kelly develops Mari’s character with finesse and grace and depth. And at the same time he gives her resonant foils to play against, the most consequential of whom is of course her mother. The inversion of their relationship is dramatic and striking and touching. But other people in her life, such as her Martian friend and lover Elan, are also vitally depicted and serve as resonant milestones in her life. The reappearance of Jak after many years is particularly shocking.

As for the political and economic and cultural milieu of this future, Kelly has successfully rethought all the old clichés involving a colonized solar system, much in the manner of recent books by Kim Stanley Robinson, Karl Schroeder and others. He shows himself to be part of a wave to take these old concepts and adapt them to 21st-century perspectives and realities.

Kelly has, since the start of his career, bridged the chasm between the cyberpunks and the humanists. His tropes and novums are rigorously hardcore and technologically savvy, yet his treatment of his characters refuses to place them in the usual rigid socioeconomic matrix of outlaws versus corporate types. The Establishment is not the enemy here. He continues this hybrid performance admirably in this book, which has enough technospritz to satisfy fans of Bruce Sterling and enough old-school heart and compassion to match the work of Kelly’s pal John Kessel, whose most recent novel, The Moon and the Other, seems a cousin to this book.

Of course Mother Go slots neatly and proudly into a historic lineage: Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy and Podkayne of Mars. Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage. Kelly’s own Wildlife. John Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series. And Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier, among others.

This tactic of unveiling the realities of the future through the eyes of an adolescent who progresses from immaturity to wisdom is a winner every time, when done deftly. And Kelly shows us that in the gap between novels, he has only gotten more adept, crafty, empathetic and clever at constructing and inhabiting such a cosmic bildungsroman.

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.

John Langan reviews Benjamin Percy

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy (Graywolf Press 9781555977597 $16.00, 160pp, tp) October 2016.

The essays collected in Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me address different aspects of the same topic, the writing of fiction. It’s a subject about which no shortage of titles exists. What distinguishes Percy’s contribution is the clarity of his prose and his suggestions for the aspiring and apprentice writer. A self-described outliner, Percy structures each essay as a series of guidelines, each new one leading for­ward from the previous. Along the way, he draws on examples from popular fiction and film (especially Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws) to illustrate the points he’s making. Autobiographical passages help to ground his instruction in a personal context, which lends it the added weight of lived experience.

As is the case with any good book of writing ad­vice, there’s plenty to agree – and disagree – with. But the no-nonsense approach Percy takes, which emphasizes crafting compelling narratives about significant events in the lives of interesting characters, is a solid one for writers trying to construct a sturdy narrative. So often, in the rush to demonstrate the ways to break the rules of fiction, writing teachers skimp on letting their students know what those rules are in the first place – even when students want (and need) to learn them. Thrill Me offers a concise, lucid anatomy of the bones that support narratives ranging from Jaws to Blood Meridian. Put this book on the shelf next to John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Stephen King’s On Writing.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Best New Horror #27

Best New Horror #27, Stephen Jones, ed. (Drug­store Indian Press, 978-1-78636-066-3, £12.99, 546pp, tp) January 2017

Steve Jones’s Best New Horror #27 features a grisly cover image reproduced from Chamber of Chills, a short-lived comic from the early 1950s that was a casualty of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and his notorious crusade against violent comic books. It’s a reminder of the days when horror was packaged pretty much the way everybody expected it to look – garish and bloodcurdling. Although Jones has chosen the image for nostalgic reasons, his selections for his anthology contrast notably with it. Some have their moments of physical horror, but all 17 stories show the artistry that horror’s best writers achieve in their work.

The volume leads off with ‘‘The Coffin House’’, one of a handful of stories by the late Robert Aickman (who died in 1981) that eluded publication until 2015. Aickman’s best stories are masterpieces of oblique horror in which characters find themselves slipping into a world of strange and sometimes nightmarish experiences, and this tale – about two young women on a walk in the country who become trapped in a house with two elderly lunatics (or are they?) – is one of his signature excursions into the macabre. Jones has also selected two stories from a tribute anthology to Aickman’s fiction, Aickman’s Heirs: John Lan­gan’s ‘‘Underground Economy’’ and Daniel Mills’s ‘‘The Lake’’, the latter of which is punctuated by a haunting image as inexplicable and disturbing to its characters as it is to the reader. Tribute anthologies have become a staple of the horror field in recent years and Jones has tapped several others for their best selections, including Helen Marshall’s ‘‘Expo­sure’’, a tale of a stranger in an even stranger land from an anthology that pays homage to Robert W. Chambers’ landmark weird collection, The King in Yellow, and Richard Gavin’s ‘‘The Barnacle Daugh­ter’’, which finds a novel approach for a story set in the increasingly overworked terrain of Lovecraft’s ‘‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’’.

As with Aickman’s Heirs, Jones double dips from several other sources for his selections. Two stories from Terror Tales of the Ocean use the seaside as a backdrop for intensely personal dramas. In Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘‘The Seventh Wave’’, another of her excellent psychological portraits of an isolated character in a state of emotional crisis, the narrator describes the devastating seaside tragedy that took her family from her in terms that make it seem an externalization of her long-troubled state of mind. Similarly, in Conrad Williams’s ‘‘The Offing’’, the turbulence and horrifying alienness of the sea serves as a correlative to the dysfunctional behavior of the family it profiles. The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories provides Jones with another two stories: Kurt Fawver’s ‘‘Marrowvale’’, in which a writer travels to a remote Pennsylvania town to investigate one of its bizarre Halloween traditions and discovers to his misfortune that it is rooted in something worse than mere eccentricity, and ‘‘The Larder’’, in which Nicholas Royle manages the ingenious feat of invest­ing a wildlife guide about birds and their predatory habits with ominous significance for the narrator and his relationship with his lover.

Jones’s other selections show the wide variety of horror story being written today. Storm Constantine’s ‘‘In the Earth’’ is a bad-seed tale laced with super­natural portents. Gemma Files’s ‘‘Hairwork’’ (also picked up for Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume 3) is a haunting of account of a family legacy of black magic, handed down through a slave bloodline from the antebellum south to contemporary times. Ron Weighell’s ‘‘The Chapel of Infernal Devotion’’ is, like most of this author’s work, very much in the antiquarian ghost story tradition. Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘‘In the Lovecraft Museum’’ is an extraordinary novella-length work which uses references to Love­craft and concepts in his fiction to illuminate its main character’s sense of detachment from his world and inability to connect in any meaningfully intimate way with others. No Cthulhu Mythos pastiche this: it’s a superb example of how one writer can appropriate ideas implicit in the work of another writer and use them to serve the needs of his own concerns and style.

As in years past, Jones brackets the book’s fiction selections with a far-ranging introductory survey of horror in a wide variety of media for the year and a ‘‘Necrology’’ of deaths relevant to the horror field, compiled with Kim Newman. At nearly eighty pages, the ‘‘Necrology’’ bulks almost as large as Jones’s Introduction and is absolutely invaluable for showing the reach of the horror genre and how many people have contributed to it in its many forms over the past century.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory (Knopf 978-1-5247-3182-3, $26.95, 402pp, hc) June 2017.

Happy families may be all alike, but Daryl Gregory’s families, as a rule, need work. The father in The Devil’s Alphabet turns into a morbidly obese drug factory, the adopted baby brother in Raising Stony Mayhall is a zombie, the mom in Harrison Squared is abducted by Lovecraftian nameless ones, even the victims of various bizarre horrors in We Are All Completely Fine form a kind of family of survivors in the world’s least insurable support group. Family has been a recurring concern in Gregory’s fiction since the beginning of his career, but with Spoonbenders, he explores the dynam­ics of a messed-up family with greater complexity, affection, and humor than ever before. It may be the least bizarre of his novels in terms of fantasy invention, but it’s also the most deeply humane, and easily the funniest.

At first, the premise seems built on pure flim­flam. Several years earlier, a family of show-biz psychics going by the name of Teddy Telema­chus and His Amazing Family nearly made their national breakthrough on the Mike Douglas TV show, when a surprise guest named the Astound­ing Archibald – a magician-turned-debunker clearly modeled on James Randi – effectively ruined their act. The patriarch, Teddy – a card shark whose only real claim to fame is his asser­tion that Johnny Carson stole his envelope-reading routine – invokes the usual con-man excuse that Archibald’s ‘‘negativity’’ has dampened their powers, but in fact his wife Maureen and their three children all have actual psi talents. Maureen is a clairvoyant capable of leaving her body, while the young Irene can flawlessly detect lies, Frankie is telekinetic, and Buddy is basically unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim-like: he can experience events of the past and future almost randomly (and in a clever stylistic echo of this, he’s the only major point of view character whose chapters are always in present tense).

Most of the action takes place some 20 years later, in the summer of 1995. Maureen has long since died – which Frankie bitterly ascribes to the TV debacle – but Teddy has found a new girlfriend with the help of his old grifter tech­niques. Buddy has nearly gone mute, leaving unexplained his odd behaviors like digging a huge hole in the yard, though he’s unsettled by his awareness that he can see nothing beyond a certain date later that summer – which might, of course, imply his own death. Irene has ignomini­ously moved back to the Chicago area after her unwanted lie-detecting talent has led to an almost paralytic paranoia, and Frankie is trying to turn his limited telekinetic ability – which works pretty well with old-fashioned pinball machines – to his advantage at roulette, since he’s gotten in deep with the mob boss of Chicago’s western suburbs (a setting which Gregory evokes with convincing detail). But Irene’s teenage son Matty has begun exhibiting a wild talent like his grandmother’s: he can leave his body in what the psychics call astral projection – though he apparently can do it only when he’s extremely horny or buzzed on pot (there are enough comic possibilities there for an entire Judd Apatow movie, but Gregory doesn’t overdo it). Complicating matters further is the reappear­ance of a federal agent named Destin Smalls, who had recruited the grandmother Maureen in the 1960s for a secret government project involving psychics as spies (based on the real Star Gate project) and now is interested in Mattie.

By the time we get to the third act – and the novel is structured almost like a Kaufman and Hart comedy; You Can’t Take it With You came to mind more than once – even their old nemesis Archibald is back on stage, and the manner in which Gregory begins to draw all the narrative threads together, from Buddy’s hole in the ground, to Matty’s remote viewing, to a ridiculous new government weapon called a micro-lepton gun, is nothing short of brilliant. We hardly notice these plot lines as they are being shrewdly laid down, for the perfectly good reason that what pulls us through the novel is essentially its celebration of family love. Teddy, his children, and Matty are all given viewpoint chapters (and, rather subtly, each is assigned in the chapter breaks a symbol from the Zener cards once used to test for telepathy). As these tragicomic tales weave together, the emerging tapestry is as lovely as it is absurd. The fantasy elements, carefully modulated but more restrained than in Gregory’s earlier fiction, never really pretend to be much more than story devices, making Spoonbenders about the best novel about psychic hogwash I’ve seen – because Gregory knows what psychic hogwash is really good for in fiction.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews William Browning Spencer

The Unorthodox Dr. Draper and Other Stories, by William Browning Spencer (Subterranean 978-1596068315, $40, 288pp, hardcover) July 31, 2017

The career of William Browning Spencer stretches back at least as far as 1990, when his first novel, Maybe I’ll Call Anna, appeared. A wild-eyed talent not easily categorizable–think David Bunch, Neal Barrett, Barrington Bayley, or Howard Waldrop–Spencer has had a notoriously hard time producing fiction and getting it published–and, consequently, a hard time also in staying afloat in this knife-edged world where capitalism rules with an iron fist. In those nearly three decades since Anna, he had brought us only an additional four books–according to my count from his ISFDB entry. But each one has been unique and something to cherish. I began reviewing him over twenty years ago, and have faithfully awaited each rare manifestation of a new Spencer book. And this month I and Spencer’s other fans are again rewarded–thanks to the loyal sponsorship of Bill Schafer and Subterranean–with a new collection. This year is therefore automatically an annus mirabilis.

Spencer’s deadpan, droll, caustic introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book. Despite the variegated bizarro (yet utterly empathizable) characters and exotic settings of these stories, they share similar themes: betrayal of friends, family, self; the death of dreams and ambitions; heartbreak; the futility of artistic striving with its inherent material limits. But despite these sobering topics and vectors–Spencer himself notes: “Looking over these stories, I see that they are pretty dark.”–the overall effect of this collection is to reassure the reader that bits of glory and consolation and pride can be rescued from the wreckage, if only a person hews to their ideals and a sense of what is right, and has the courage to perform.

The volume opens with “How the Gods Bargain,” a Lovecraftian Mythos story which casually informs us that Miskatonic University has a “sister school, Legrasse.” But far from other less sophisticated pastiches, the tale has a bright naturalistic surface which very effectively highlights the eldritch aspects. Three adults, friends since high-school, have a dire reunion in a occult General Store. Only one emerges.

Sam Silvers, the protagonist of “Penguins of the Apocalypse” (a title worthy of Gary Larson’s Farside strip) is typical of Spencer’s down-and-out guys. Living above a bar where he drinks too much, this deadbeat dad nonetheless tries to do good by his son Danny. But when Sam has the misfortune to meet a fellow named Derrick Thorn, he discovers that a hasty, casual wish he made has come true. In another era, this would have been a primo episode of The Twilight Zone. Can Sam reverse his misjudgment and best Thorn? Maybe, if he is willing to make a sacrifice. Be sure to enjoy Thorn’s brilliantly fractured speech patterns.

Wally Bennett, from “Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love,” also meets an odd person: an alluring woman named Flower. But she seems to belong to a cult whose bible is a book titled Of Pandas and People. Can Wally woo her? Should he woo her? And what of the shotgun marriage proposed by her enormous inhuman father? “He looked like Walt Whitman, Wally thought, if that great poet had weighed an additional three hundred pounds, had a thick slab of a brow that kept his eyes in constant shadow and a voluminous beard, mottled with gray-green moss or lichen.”

Anyone desirous of following the writer’s life should first read “The Tenth Muse.” Our hero, Marshall Harrison, is a struggling hack locked into producing a series of mystery novels he knows are below his talents. His dead father had a best-selling book of poetry whose success drove him to suicide. And Marshall’s new journalism assignment is to interview an old family friend named Morton Sky, whose one bestseller left him unable to write anything else. But these tawdry circumstances are all revealed to have occult underpinnings, which could prove fatal for all.

Stolen brutally from his family, the child named Stone becomes a vassal of the Librarian, in the aptly named “Stone and the Librarian.” The leader of “Knowledge Base #29” proves to be a scavenger from the far future. And the tortures he puts his charges through–reading Moby Dick and Remembrance of Things Past–are utterly inhuman! Needless to say, black humor here abounds.

The narration in “The Indelible Dark” shifts back and forth between two milieus. First we see a post-Armageddon future in which a boy named Mark Cory must battle against mutants called Lethe’s Children. Then we return to the present to witness the shabby plight of another writer, very much a Kilgore Trout avatar. But when the writer experiences a wound in his belly that does not bleed, both scenarios go rapidly off the rails.

Pure virtuoso comedic steampunk, “The Dappled Thing” charts the jungle adventures of Sir Bertram Rudge and his miraculous vessel, Her Glory of Empire, as Rudge and companions search for the missing woman named Lavinia. But only upon a successful return to England do the ultimate consequences of the wild adventure appear.

Brad and Meta, a happy young couple, are driving along a deserted highway in “Usurped.” Suddenly, an attack by wasps sends their car careening off the road. When Brad awakes in a hospital, he and Meta have divergent memories. Later, a strange fellow appears and offers an explanation. Should Brad pursue his investigations, or leave well enough alone? We might suspect that plunging deeper into the mystery will be fraught, but the ending that Spencer offers is unforeseeable.

Lastly, the title story finds the loony psychotherapist Dr. Draper at a loss about how to deal with Rachel, his newest recalcitrant and blocked patient. He hires a detective, Milton Caine, to dig into Rachel’s past. What they find–the tip of the iceberg is that Rachel’s alternate personalities take on very potent forms–leads them down a Jungian maelstrom.

And as lagniappe, we get an original poem, whose title says it all: “The Love Song of A. Alhazred Azatoth.”

The writers I cited at the head of this piece share with Spencer the quality of being one-of-a-kind creators functioning out of the mainstream. But Spencer’s elegant prose, off-kilter conceits, and mordant view of existence also summon up comparisons to folks with a larger audience, such as Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Carroll, and Robert Aickman. It is an illustrious company he belongs to, and he deserves as much success as any of his fellows. With luck, this book takes him one step closer to that reward.

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.

“This Is Going to Be a Lot of Fun”: A Review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

by Gary Westfahl

For the most part, I found Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be an enjoyable space adventure, deploying consistently dazzling visuals in support of an involving story that never becomes entirely predictable. And while serious issues are intermittently raised, the film is refreshingly unpretentious, in contrast to other recent films, as the director’s primary aim was clearly to entertain audiences, not to enlighten or inspire them with portentous bromides. Its aim, then, is well conveyed by Valerian’s statement upon reaching space station Alpha, “This is going to be a lot of fun.” Appealingly childlike – though not childish – the film invites comparison to other colorful classics like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the film that it most visibly seeks to emulate, the original Star Wars (1977).

In one interesting respect, however, Besson defies the pattern set by George Lucas, since the first line of his space epic – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” – defiantly refuses to connect its story’s events to any aspects of Earth’s history. Yet this film’s opening sequence painstakingly establishes its setting as an outgrowth of humanity’s past and anticipated future achievements in space travel: we first observe actual footage of the 1975 meeting of American and Soviet astronauts during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, followed by a series of future meetings on Earth-orbiting space stations, first involving several groups of people from different nations (in 2020 and 2031), then involving humans, exotic aliens, and robots (in 2150). At this point, we are told that the now-enormous Alpha has become a menace to Earth, so it is dispatched on a long interstellar journey to the “Magellan Current” and becomes, 400 years later, the bustling home of innumerable alien species inhabiting four separate environments. Besson insists, in other words, that his extravagant vision actually represents one possible future for the human race – and also explains some seemingly anachronistic features of his world, like the “Ivy League education” of Valerian’s partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and use of the familiar three-pronged symbol to warn of radioactivity. Of course, no “Magellan Current” exists; we are told that the length of the station’s journey was “700 million miles,” which would leave it within the solar system, though it is obviously supposed to be many light years from Earth; and one struggles to imagine how to propel a city-sized object so that it would reach such a distance in 400 years. But like other science fiction filmmakers, Besson employed no scientific advisors to address these practical issues, and while they have no impact on the overall quality of the film, these lapses do undermine an apparently sincere effort to make his story seem scientifically plausible.

Knowingly or not, Besson is also joining a long tradition of science fiction stories about space stations, which I have explored in two books. The name of his station, Alpha, has been employed in numerous science fiction stories (most prominently in Ben Bova’s Kinsman series), and there are also several stories about transforming space stations into traveling spaceships (though the usual motive is escaping the monotony of endlessly orbiting Earth, not saving the planet from an impending catastrophe). But Besson most aligns himself with earlier science fiction because of his realization, as I said in Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (1996), that “A space station would be an ideal place for humans and aliens to meet – neutral ground, as it were,” and an environment “where traditional enemies can meet without animosity or hostility” – concepts most prominently aired in the television series Babylon 5 (1994-1999). Given that both people and posited aliens are deeply tied to the places where they live, and will always have an advantage in their home environment, a space station might indeed represent the only place where disparate individuals could interact as equals, as already observed in the cooperative efforts of many nations to construct and staff the International Space Station. And Besson repeatedly emphasizes that tremendous progress has occurred because the disparate species inhabiting Alpha have been able to share their knowledge and ideas. Despite its fanciful story, then, Valerian has embedded in it the real-world argument that we need to maintain and eventually replace the ISS as a mechanism for improving international relations and achieving scientific advances.

To underline these points, Besson has assembled a reasonably diverse cast, and no one seems to dislike, or discriminate against, the various odd-looking aliens that are constantly in view; prejudice is displayed solely by one alien race that excludes other beings from their enclave with guards and a sign reading “No Forigners Allowed” (the spelling error suggesting that bigots aren’t too bright). If one ethnic group is slightly favored, it is the Chinese, reflecting how important they have become to a film’s financial success. Thus, the first fictional group of greeted space visitors is Chinese; one briefly glimpses a Chinese flag in space station Alpha; one assistant to General Okto-Bar (Sam Spruell), an unnamed female sergeant, is portrayed by a French-British actress of Asian descent, Claire Tran; and a noted Chinese singer who has had several hits, Kris Wu, is cast as Sergeant Neva, Okto-Bar’s chief aide. (Could this film’s “Exo-Space” be a reference to Wu’s old band, EXO?) And Neva, who originally functions as a spear carrier, actually emerges as a major hero in the final scenes, inasmuch as his actions, not Valerian’s, ultimately save the day.

Since my familiarity with Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’s graphic novel series “Valerian and Laureline” is limited to the four stories included in the recently published Valerian: The Complete Collection Volume 1 (2016), it is possible that space station Alpha, and other aspects of Besson’s story, first appeared in one of their stories; and Besson does include one of the series’ recurring aliens, three greedy but informative Shingouz. I suspect, though, that this film’s plot is largely original, though vaguely inspired by the similarly titled “The Empire of a Thousand Planets” (1971). Both stories begin with Valerian and Laureline assigned to surreptitiously visit a planet with a large marketplace, though their mission here is not to investigate the planet, but rather to obtain a valuable object. And the appearance of Christin and Mézières’s planet Syrte – crowded streets filled with variegated and sometimes suspicious aliens – probably influenced Besson’s “Big Market” on the planet Kyrian and Alpha’s urban centers.

There are also several films that had an impact on Besson’s story. One idea is lifted from the Star Trek universe, as its most prominent aliens share the Vulcan ability to transfer one’s consciousness to another person’s brain at the time of death. When Valerian ventures into Alpha’s “Paradise Alley,” filled with garish illuminated signs and aggressive prostitutes, some might recall the dark, seedy streets of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – perhaps referenced by Besson’s use of one of its stars, Rutger Hauer, who briefly appears as the President of the World State Federation; there are also resonances with the urban landscapes of Besson’s own The Fifth Element (1995). But viewers will be most aware of the film’s references to the Star Wars films, including a villain who looks suspiciously like Jabba the Hutt, a scene wherein Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline escape by falling into a chamber filled with garbage, and Laureline’s comment, “I have a bad feeling about this idea.”

Most disheartening, though, are Besson’s overt borrowings from James Cameron’s Avatar (2009 – review here). The tall, thin aliens of the planet Mül, termed Pearls, with their light blue skins and loincloths, visibly resemble Cameron’s Na’vi, and they are also described as peaceful people who “lived in harmony with the planet.” Like the Na’vi, they are also oppressed by human soldiers with a crazed, fanatical leader – Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) – who is determined to “Annihilate” the “savages” who are interfering with his plans. Yet Besson improves upon Cameron in several respects. For one thing, this apparently simplistic melodrama is only one major thread in a complex plot featuring other humans and aliens who are harder to classify as heroes or villains, and the story itself is more nuanced, as Filitt articulates a rational motive for his actions – a desire to save humanity from financial ruin – and he is ultimately opposed by his calm, compassionate subordinate Okto-Bar, contradicting the stereotype of the evil, genocidal soldier. The Pearls are developed more creatively than Cameron’s blue-skinned Native Americans: their faces are illuminated by colored dots to show emotions, they employ their planet’s actual pearls to obtain energy, and these and other gems can be endlessly duplicated by their cute reptilian pets, the Converters. They also respond to changed circumstances by embracing advanced technology, teaching themselves “mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy” to survive, and invent and use energy weapons in an attempt to reacquire one of their Converters – so the story does not devolve into a trite fable about virtuous nature corrupted by sinister science.

I am not sure why I initially compared this film to The Wizard of Oz, since there are no obvious connections or references to the earlier film; probably, I simply regarded them both as charming stories about young people traveling through marvelous lands. Yet there are a few similarities to pursue. Both are stories focused on returning home: Valerian regularly expresses a strong desire to finish his mission, go on “vacation,” and marry Laureline to achieve some domesticity in his life, while the Pearls fervently hope to re-create and re-inhabit their lost idyllic world. The travelers here, like Dorothy, are sometimes accompanied and assisted by strange companions – the Converter, the Shingouz, the shapeshifting Bubble (Rihanna), and the eccentric submariner Bob (Alain Chabat). And both protagonists discover that nothing in the exotic realms they enter is as it seems: the commander Valerian and Laureline are assigned to assist turns out to be a villain, and the dangerous “radioactive zone” they are instructed to avoid is harmless.

Most significantly, the films can be linked because both sets of filmmakers were manifestly determined to fill their films with bright colors and amazing special effects, so that even if audiences aren’t closely following the plot, the screen is always offering something to entertain them. And Besson and his associates are profligate in providing a constant stream of wonders, so much so that one cannot possibly absorb them all in a single viewing. During Valerian’s visit to the Big Market, for example, one observes a floating Eiffel Tower, a jellyfish-like creature hovering in a street, and an alien resembling a turkey – but each is only visible for a second, and there were several dozen other structures and beings that I barely noticed at all. Further, there are definite signs of intelligence in some of the films’ visual effects. Consider, for example, one recurring cliché in the increasingly common, Blade Runner-like “retrofuture” I discussed while reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017 – review here): crowded city streets with advertising holograms. These are usually placed above or to the side of the streets, and they make no sounds, so that pedestrians can easily ignore them. The holograms in this film materialize directly in front of Valerian and talk to him, virtually requiring him to pay attention; so, when one asks, “Hey, you need a lawyer?” Valerian replies no, he’s a government agent. And that’s the sort of holographic advertising that marketers would logically prefer.

While Valerian is thus a visual feast, it is not a film that one would want to listen to. There is nothing really memorable about Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, and the film’s song choices are uninspired. With so many songs about astronauts available, it is disappointing that Besson, for what seems like the thousandth time, turns to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969); when using a more memorable song, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Jamming” (1977), Besson should play more than a snippet of it; and one fervently hopes that people in the twenty-sixth century will find better music to dance to than Wyclef Jean’s 1997 rap version of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (1977). Interestingly, when a female tourist (Irene Palko) purchases a French horn at the Big Market, her husband (Sam Douglas) comments that she doesn’t even know what it’s for – perhaps suggesting that people in the future have no taste in music.

But the film’s major musical sin involves two of its stars, pop singer Rihanna and jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. With such talents available, Besson should have sent them to the studio to work up some great music to perform in the film and improve its soundtrack. (Perhaps singer Wu could also have been invited to join the jam session.) Yet Rihanna never sings, and Hancock, playing the future’s Defense Minister, is limited to terse, televised messages. More broadly, Rihanna’s scenes represent a major weakness of the film. The dance she performs for Valerian, instantly changing her costume again and again, contributes nothing to the story, goes on much too long, and, considering the film’s other stunning visuals, isn’t particularly impressive; but when someone casts a star, I suppose, they must give her a star turn. In addition, unlike all of the other characters, Rihanna’s Bubbles keeps dispensing trite advice and empty platitudes: “show some weakness – it will make her feel important”; “take good care of her – love her without measure”; “where I come from, life is more painful than death”; “life’s a drag when you don’t have an identity to call your own.” Finally, she is written out of the story abruptly and unpersuasively, as if Besson recognized her character was an intrusive embarrassment that needed to be excised as quickly as possible.

Although I have read no other reviews of Valerian, glances at links indicate that a lot of critics didn’t like this film, and I’m struggling to figure out why. Perhaps the real problem is that, as I have been intimating, Valerian is at its heart a children’s film, based on some old comic books that entranced a young Luc Besson, and it should be evaluated within that context. And while the 31-year-old DeHaan and the 25-year-old Delevingne are fine in their roles, Besson might have been better advised to skip a generation, cast teenagers as his leads, and recast his story as Valerian’s very first adventure – to convey and underline the youthful spirit that animates his story. So, if you want some adult entertainment this weekend, go see Dunkirk, but I don’t regret that I chose to watch this film instead.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press; ; his forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke and a collection of essays from the Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.

Paula Guran reviews Short Fiction: May 2017

Fiyah Winter 2017
Gamut 2/17, 3/17
Apex Magazine 2/17
The Dark 4/17
Tor.com 3/8/17, 3/9/17
Uncanny 3-4/17

Fiyah is a new literary magazine dedicated to Black speculative fiction, a spiritual successor to the experimental FIRE!!, an African-American magazine of the Harlem Renaissance that managed only one issue in 1926. (The magazine’s offices burned to the ground shortly after it was published.) The theme of the first issue is, appropriately ‘‘rebirth.’’ Of the six stories in Fiyah #1, four are dark enough to cover here and all are strong.

‘‘Revival’’ by Wendi Dunlap is set about a thousand years into the future. A band of humans have found a home on a planet they have named Revival. Serene is imprisoned and awaiting execution. Her crime is pregnancy: her fellow settlers fear she will give birth to something non-human. Although short, it packs a punch, raising questions about individual freedom, the sanctity of life, choice, and – perhaps – evolution.

Truly original, ‘‘The Shade Caller’’ by DaVaun Sanders is a complex, rich tale of an outsider whose flesh is literally devoured by the sun, and strives to be accepted by the village that has taken him in. He is to be the first of his kind allowed to participate in rites that will make him Seen rather than Unseen, but on the eve of the ritual he is accused of theft. His chance to be Seen is imperiled. He sets out to prove his innocence and discovers, among other things, that: ‘‘It is a choice to acknowledge that hearing an Unseen voice does not mean one is mad.’’ This is a story of oppression and accepting not only who you are, but coming to understand there is great power in what you are.

In the disturbing ‘‘Sisi Je Kuisha (We Have Ended)’’ by V.H. Galloway, the protagonist’s father is cruelly killed, and he becomes the last of the Eloko – predatory troll-like creatures with snouts and vicious teeth who grow grass in place of hair. The introduction of guns has given humans the advantage over them. A chief’s son befriends him and saves his life. The outcome is, twice over, probably not at all what you expect.

‘‘Chesirah’’ by L.D. Lewis is less dense and outright enjoyable. Chesirah is a fenox – a being that (yes, like a phoenix) periodically burns itself to ash and is then reborn. As a safe place to burn and keep their ashes safe until they reconstitute, fenox are kept (and abused) by the eccentric rich. Chesirah wants her freedom and is not afraid to kill a master or two to gain it. Set in a spacefaring fantasy universe, the fenox’s latest bid for liberty is dependent on getting off the planet. She quickly encounters both nefarious villains who wish to thwart her and a band of potential allies. Although a complete story, one can easily see where this could be expanded into an adventurous novel.

*

Gamut is a new online magazine of ‘‘neo-noir speculative fiction with a literary bent’’ that debuted January 1. Halfway through Gamut #3, the March issue, we have ‘‘The Arrow of Time’’ by Kate Dollarhyde. In this evocative tale, the North Pole has ‘‘turned to slurry,’’ and ‘‘California shriveled under skies washed red with wildfire haze’’ more than three decades before. The nameless narrator’s scientist mother yearns for the verdant hills, blue skies, and beautiful ocean vistas of her youth, so much so that successfully she builds a time machine to go back to it. Now returned to her own era, the mother is dying of cancer. The daughter, who accepts the ‘‘hot, dry world’’ as humanity’s new home, contemplates her mother’s choices. Surreal, but grounded, the story offers the hope of adaptability amid the darkness of the changed world.

Amber Sparks’s ‘‘We Destroy the Moon’’ brims with elegant description. Sparks uses language like a surgeon’s double-edged lance, slicing and infecting at the same time. Society has broken down and in ‘‘this dry and poisoned time.’’ The narrator is an artist who creates, while her scam-artist lover makes himself into a god. ‘‘They called you a madman. They seethed, but understood – how false words were part of the new darkness. They understood how easy to become a prophet, #endtimesscamartist, how easy to sow hope among the hopeless.’’ Sparks is a unique voice whose reputation seems, so far, to have been better established in the literary world than genre.

*

Stories from Gamut #2 (February) include ‘‘Forestborn’’ by Sylvia Heike. A girl with a wild bird’s nest for hair warns the narrator that she is ‘‘forestborn’’ and cannot live in houses. It’s charming if inevitable story.

‘‘When I was fourteen, I ate a cooked piece of thigh meat off my girlfriend Sherry Wilkes.’’ One might wish to avoid a story with an opening line like that, but this is Stephen Graham Jones, so a rewarding read is guaranteed. In ‘‘Love Is A Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching’’, he indelibly examines love: not the love of a lifetime, but the all-consuming youthful passion that flashes hot and burns out quickly, and then ends with a twist creepy enough to make you shudder.

All five of these stories from Gamut are written in first person; ‘‘Figure 8’’ by Elise Tobler is told in second person. A clone – ‘‘created to kill, built… as a weapon none would suspect’’ – is ‘‘perfection’’ after seven imperfect versions who came before her. She sets out to destroy the faulty prototypes, who, despite their deficiencies, are functioning in various societal roles. The ending can be guessed early on, but the situations and deaths of the other clones are varied and interesting.

*

Apex Magazine for February offers a trio of scary stories. ‘‘Queen of Dirt’’ by Nisi Shawl features Brit, a teenager with paranormal powers, teaching children martial arts at a summer camp for city kids. Brit’s aware of some bad ‘‘entities’’ resident in the campgrounds. Despite trying to avoid them, she encounters and overcomes them. The supernatural plot parallels Brit’s feelings about her family and the conclusion ties the two elements together. There are a couple of ‘‘holes’’ in this story I wish had been better filled, but Brit’s horrific supernatural experience – her body possessed and controlled by the ‘‘other’’ – is absolutely bone chilling, and her complex teenage heroine (who previously appeared in an earlier tale) deserves more adventures. Extra points for the use of apiology both symbolically and supernaturally.

In ‘‘The Bells’’ by Lyndsie Manusos, Mary is a living doll who was once human. Owned by woodcarver Bishop, she can be ‘‘restrained and confined, played with as anyone pleased’’ and is almost emotionless except for fear, ‘‘an emotion that connects every living thing.’’ How Bishop performed a reverse Pygmalion and turned her into a doll is a mystery. The only ‘‘why’’ supplied is that she ‘‘sold her soul and lost a bet.’’ There are a couple of niggling details that distract from the excellent atmospherics Manusos provides. These flaws are not fatal, but they leave ‘‘The Bells’’ as average when it has the potential to be more.

In Rich Larson’s ‘‘You Too Shall Be Psyche’’, clan girl Reva, angry that Brete, her less-beautiful sister, has been chosen to be the bride of the God in the Pit, decides to replace her. The god turns out to be something unexpected. In fact, the whole world turns out to be something unexpected. Reva is shallow, vain, and rather stupid, so her ultimate altruistic choice seems outside her character. There are elements of old-school Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison here, with a Twilight Zone ending, which can be good or less so, depending on your taste

*

‘‘The Name, Blurry and Incomplete in His Mind’’ by Erica Mosley is one of two originals in The Dark (April). Ten-year-old Jentri – ‘‘born into a skeleton of a house and a ruin of a marriage, and learned to crawl in half-finished rooms, leaving a trail through drywall dust’’ – and her father are practically strangers, despite his weekly 90-minute visits. About the only thing they share is a ‘‘game’’ of searching the partially renovated old house for the name ‘‘Susie.’’ Scratched or written by some long-gone little girl, the ‘‘Susies’’ evolve into stories the father tells. It’s harmless – until Jentri starts seeing and feeling Susie herself. Her mother calls a halt to the game, but Susie continues to haunt. Then Jentri finds a ‘‘secret passage’’ in the house. Unfortunately, after doing an excellent job drawing the reader in and stirring up a palpable atmosphere of dread, the story turns so oblique it is difficult to interpret the conclusion.

Kristi DeMeester handles surreal spookiness very well in ‘‘The Language of Endings’’, the issue’s other original. The ghost of a 16-year-old girl – exploited, ruined, and murdered by the man who marries her – haunts and hides in his house. ‘‘He is waiting for a haunting I won’t give to him because I remember everything he hopes I’ve forgotten.’’ It’s rare that one can not only root for a wronged ghost, but enjoy her justifiable revenge. DeMeester lets us do so.

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Tor.com’s ‘‘Come See the Living Dryad’’ by Theodora Goss is a well-told tale of a modern academic researching the murder of her great-greatgrandmother who became famous as ‘‘Daphne, the Living Dryad.’’ Displayed in freak-show fashion, the woman actually suffered from the rare Lewandowsky- Lutz dysplasia. The story is fascinating and vividly told, but as Goss pretty much reveals who the real murderer is from early on, there’s little tension or mystery.

On International Women’s Day, Tor.com published a collection of flash fiction featuring ‘‘unique visions of women inventing, playing, loving, surviving, and – of course – dreaming of themselves beyond their circumstances’’ with the theme of ‘‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’’ All are worth reading, but three of the darkest are also among the best. Both Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘‘Anabasis’’ – a story of cruel borders – and ‘‘The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor’’ by Catherynne M. Valente – set in a kingdom where the words true and false have been banned – are heart-breaking, frightening, poetic metaphors for the very real. Seanan McGuire’s portrayal of an oppressive near-future, ‘‘Persephone’’, is more direct and perhaps even more chilling for it.

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Most of the stories in Uncanny #15 don’t fall into my ordained territory here, but one dark fantasy should be mentioned. Beth Cato’s ‘‘With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips’’ has the charm of a fairy tale: shadowy, but not completely stygian. Lady Magdalena, who uses magic to safely silence and bind ghosts so they will not interfere with the living, acquires an eager young apprentice in Vera. Times are tough and Vera, who also has the ability to speak to animals, both needs and likes the work – until an expensive accident brings Magdalena’s wrath. Vera, in an effort to make amends with Magdalena, uncovers – with the help of some animals – a mystery that could endanger her mentor. One can easily see these characters carried on in other situations.

Spring has come, bringing more light and fewer chills… but darkness lingers.

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