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Liz Bourke reviews Bookburners

Bookburners, Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty &Brian Francis Slattery (Saga 978-1481485579, $34.99, 800pp, hc) January 2017.

Let’s talk about Bookburners: Season 1, the first online serial narrative launched by Serial Box Publications, now coming to bookshelves in paper versions, care of Saga Press. (Season 2 has already launched electronically, and may even be complete by the time this review sees press.) I read it in an afternoon’s sitting, because I couldn’t put it down.

Bookburners was created by Max Gladstone, author of the acclaimed Craft Sequence novels. For season one, its creative team encompasses Gladstone himself, television and transmedia writer Margaret Dunlap – most recently one of the minds behind the award-winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries – novelist and podcaster Mur Lafferty, and writer Brian Francis Slattery, whose Lost Everything won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012. That’s a roster full of heavily talented individuals. The team effort, as one might expect, reflects the calibre of the contributors.

Serial narrative, I said: I think overall Book­burners Season 1 might top 200,000 words, but it reaches that total in 16 novelette-to-short-novella-length episodes. Structurally, then, it’s a lot more like a television show than a serial novel – as it’s intended to be. A supernatural copshow/caper/spies and intrigue television show, with added complicated team dynamics.

Sal (Sally, but she goes by Sal) Brooks is an NYPD detective. In Bookburners’s first epi­sode, she discovers that magic is real and that a demon has possessed her brother Perry. She also stumbles into a Vatican-backed black ops anti-magic team, Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum, AKA the Bookburners. She, and they, tangle with the demon that’s pos­sessing Perry. When Sal survives, they offer her a job. Because magic might be real, but it’s also pretty hungry, and while it might be trapped – contained – in texts and artefacts, there’s always the risk it’ll break free – or someone will set it free – and set off something really bad. Like, for example, a magical apocalypse.

Any good long-form narrative, especially a serial one, lives or dies on its core cast of char­acters. Bookburners is no different, and fortu­nately, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint.

Sal Brooks is the main character: the Ameri­can and the rookie thrust headlong into an inter­national world of intrigue and magic, struggling to figure out what others take for granted and burdened with the guilt of surviving when her brother’s in a magical (demon-induced) coma. The role of ‘‘character to whom all this is new’’ does place certain constraints upon Sal, espe­cially in the initial episodes, and it feels to me as though she takes quite a long time to develop a distinctive personality beyond ‘‘suspicious cop with magic-related trauma.’’

She develops one eventually. Meanwhile, the reader is kept busy alongside her trying to figure out the rules of this strange new world of magic and demons – and Sal’s new teammates.

Sal’s new teammates are interesting. They all have something tragic (and magic-related) in their pasts. There’s Father Arturo Menchú, once a parish priest in Guatemala, now the head of Team Three: he blames himself for a magic-related tragedy in his former parish and has a complicated relationship with the Vatican hierarchy, the rest of the teams of the Societas Librorum Occultorum, and the cardinal set over the society. There’s Liam, a skilled hacker, an extremely religious – if unconventional – lay brother who was himself once possessed and only rescued by the Bookburners, and who is constantly full of guilt over his possession and terror about becoming possessed again. (He and Sal become lovers, briefly. Thanks to his guilt and tendency to – metaphorically – self-flagellate, it doesn’t last.) There’s Asanti, whose family comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Father Arturo’s equal – in some respects in Team Three, his superior. She’s their archivist and librarian and something like chief intelligence officer, and she alone of the Bookburners believes that magic should be studied: carefully, with appropriate safeguards, not merely locked away.

Then there’s Grace, originally from China, the team’s practically indestructible muscle: her story may be the most tragic (and interesting) of the whole team, and her no-holds-barred give-no-fucks personality makes her maybe the character I enjoy reading the most. (Sal’s invet­erate curiosity leads her to pry inappropriately and uncover Grace’s secrets, eventually – you wouldn’t think that would lead to them becom­ing fast friends, but it does, and it works.)

Having an international magic-fighting team run out of the Vatican works as a conceit: more than works, considering how old the Catholic Church is, how many pies it’s had its fingers in over the years, and how many secrets and how much corruption its organisation contains. Sal comes up hard against the realisation that the job she’s just taken doesn’t make her one of the white hats so much as it firmly puts her in a really grey moral area – for Team Three might be decent people, but the same’s not necessar­ily true for Team Two. Or Team One, whose speciality is killing things. And people.

The season builds towards its long arc and awful revelations much as a television show does. The first few episodes keep the themes of the longer arc in the background, letting the reader get used to the characters and the world in a series of explosively entertaining instal­ments. There are tornado-eating monsters. There’s a yacht slowly being eaten by strange black goo. There are tattoos that magically kill people, and the Oracle at Delphi. There’s a European magic market when the Bookburn­ers really aren’t the biggest, baddest players in town… and where we start to see the season-long secrets and dangers begin to make their way home to roost.

My favourite episode has to be ‘‘Shore Leave,’’ which I can’t help but think of as Sal and Grace’s Excellent Day Out, in which Grace takes a rare day off in Rome, Sal gets drunk, and a magical artefact in a clockmaker’s workshop causes time to run peculiar and strange. Well, that and the final two episodes of the season. There is a pretty epic showdown at the climax.

Bookburners is pretty epic, actually. Across the length of season one, it has the beats and the emotional tenor of an epic fantasy crossed with a procedural, and somehow it manages to make it work. Sal’s initial blandness as a character aside, the writing is high-quality, and the writ­ing team maintains a strong and coherent voice across all 16 episodes in season one.

While season one doesn’t end on a cliff­hanger, it does have a hell of a sequel hook. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in season two….

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

Rich Horton reviews Short Fiction, January 2017

F&SF 11-12/16
Interzone 11-12/16
Analog 12/16
Tor.com 11/02/16, 11/16/16
The Starlit Wood, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga Press) October 2016

F&SF for November/December features a rare and welcome appearance from Gardner Dozois, whose fame as an editor should not cause us to forget how good his fiction is. ‘‘The Place of Bones’’ is a short, stylish dark fantasy told by the tutor of a younger son of a French nobleman. The young man becomes a prodigious scholar, and discovers a way into the mysterious Dragonlands, somewhere not quite in Southeastern Europe. The tutor tells of their desperate trip into these lands, whence no one returns, and what they find – or hope to find – there. Robert Reed contributes a long novelette, ‘‘Passelande’’, about people’s virtual backups, and what might happen if they achieve some sort of independence from their owners. Lucas Pepper has gained some notoriety among the secretive backup community – having been able, as a physical human, to help some backups with various problems. His latest is a bit tricky – one person’s backup is convinced that her original’s boyfriend is up to no good. All this is interesting, but Reed, thoughtful as ever, works his way through to some more disturbing impli­cations of the interactions virtual ‘‘people’’ have with physical people – including a new art form.

Beside those veterans, a newcomer shines. Charlotte Ashley’s ‘‘A Fine Balance’’ concerns a city ruled by two families (or clans, or parties…), in which the balance of influence between the two is controlled by a series of duels between their various champions. At this time the greatest champions are Shoanna Yildirim and Kara Rama­dami. Mistress Yildirim’s assistant/apprentice tells the story of their last duel, and the lead-up to it, in which Yildirim’s family has been losing – and losing influence, while the two champions have not met for some time. The story combines neat dueling action with unfamiliarly manifested (but familiarly motivated) political intrigue.

In the November/December Interzone, who should turn up but Rich Larson! ‘‘You Make Pattaya’’ is a fine caper story. Dorian is a grifter in the tourist town of Pattaya, Thailand. He concocts a scheme with a prostitute he’s taken a bit of a fancy to, involving blackmailing a pop star in Thailand on a sex vacation. The story is straightforward and slick, noirish near-future crime, with minimal but well-placed SFnal elements (a bit of gender ambi­guity, some plausible surveillance tech).

Samantha Henderson’s ‘‘My Generations Shall Praise’’ is a strong dark SF story. It posits a new twist on the death penalty: the condemned can agree to serve as a host body for a transplanted personality. They – their core – die, but there’s a lot of money involved for their heirs. It’s told from the point of view of the criminal, a woman who has lived a tough life and killed enough people to be deserving – but she has a child who has a chance for a better life. Anyway, Helena MacGraw, the very rich woman who wants a new body thinks the offer of money for the daughter will sway the narrator. Helena doesn’t under­stand, perhaps, that not everyone has the same motivational triggers. There’s a very nasty, and logical, twist to the scheme that sells the story, and makes it scary.

Analog for December (their last monthly issue, we hear!) has several nice stories, all definitely Analogish in flavor, but mixing in some voices new to the magazine, like Gord Sellar, Nisi Shawl, and Eliot Fintushel. Of those three, I really liked Sellar’s ‘‘Prodigal’’, in which a couple use a new treatment to ‘‘sentientize’’ their dog. Benji (the dog) is like a child, and very inquisitive, but of course also still a dog. When they have a human child, he begins to wonder why he and the child are treated differently. He also begins to wonder why dogs in general are treated differently. For example, why they are so often euthanized. Sellar follows the notion to its logical conclusion: Benji becomes radicalized, and of course the questions the story raises have implications outside those concerning the ‘‘sentientization’’ treatment.

Two stories by Analog regulars are also worth particular notice. James Van Pelt’s ‘‘The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet’’ is about a girl named Tomika Corbett who discovers the old Tom Corbett juvies and becomes fasci­nated by space. She desperately wants a career in space, and is even more motivated, in the long run by her inevitable Space Cadet nickname, and by the resistance of teachers who disparage the old Tom Corbett books (which really were quite awful, to contemporary eyes, as I recently learned when I read one). She begins to dream of aliens coming to take her away – and she tentatively befriends another bullied kid, even smarter than her – which gives her a tough choice when – in her dreams (?) – the aliens really come. I thought this story striking for the way in which what seems old-fashioned wish-fulfillment is revealed to be a terribly sad meditation on the contemporary loss of the dream of the future we once seemed to share. Martin Shoemaker’s ‘‘Black Orbit’’ is more conventional Analog adventure, and a very good example of such, with an internal affairs spy in the Jupiter system uncovering evidence of criminal activity, and having to find a way to get that information back to Earth, even if she dies, even despite the harsh reality of orbital mechan­ics. Add in some nice speculation about the ‘‘trust economy,’’ and about AIs with minds of their own, and you have a really solid story.

There’s some nice stuff in November at Tor.com as well. ‘‘The Loud Table’’ by Jonathan Carroll opens with four older men who regularly sit and gab at a coffee shop. They’re mourning the loss of their fifth, who just died of cancer, and of course discussing their own maladies, including the one so many of us fear, Alzheimer’s. (I assume by us I mean all of us, but I’m 57, so perhaps I just mean us old men!) One of the men discusses his memory loss – which makes him fear the disease, of course. For example, this one beautiful girl­friend…. And the narrator makes him an offer…. I’ll let Carroll reveal the sting. It’s a modest story, but enjoyable and expertly told.

Caighlan Smith’s ‘‘A Pest Most Fiendish’’ is also modest in ambition, but lots of fun. Philippa Kennedy Kipling, or Pippa, and her part-clockwork servant, the Porter, are freelance contractors, dealing with magical infestations. This time they take a job ridding a planned vacation chalet of lichfiends (undead revenants of a sort) that seem to have been possessing the construction work­ers. Of course there are complications and twists, all very cleverly handled. It’s a sprightly story, and funny – the relationship of Pippa and the Porter is a particular treat.

The Starlit Wood is a first-rate anthology of reimag­ined fairy tales. Reimagining fairy tales is nothing new, of course (in these pages long ago I remember noting that Cinderella retellings are a dime a dozen), but every year we see evidence that there’s still plenty of life in those old tropes. (It’s worth mentioning, as well, that The Starlit Wood, as a physical object, is quite lovely.)

Perhaps the most overt ‘‘reimagination’’ is Sofia Samatar’s ‘‘The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle’’, which looks at an Arabic tale of at least a millennium ago, translated into English for the first time only last year. Samatar’s story literally ‘‘deconstructs’’ it, takes it apart, looks at each of the characters, and then cunningly reas­sembles it, in front of the reader, in the context of the present. It is, on the one hand, clever, but still it remains a story, and a moving story.

More traditional in form is ‘‘The Other Thea’’ by Theodora Goss, which takes the central idea of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘‘The Shadow’’ (that a person might become disconnected from their shadow, which is sort of an other self, an alternate version of them), and makes a new story of it, one related to a couple of her best earlier stories, ‘‘Miss Emily Gray’’ and ‘‘Lessons with Miss Gray’’. Thea (surely a signifi­cant name choice!) has been drifting through life in the months since graduating from Miss Lavender’s School of Witchcraft, and ends up drifting back to the school, where she is told that she must find her shadow, which had been cut off by her grandmother when she was just a child. So she travels to the Other Country, and, of course, does find her shadow – or it finds her – but who says the shadow wants anything to do with her? It’s a beautifully written story, and great fun, but perhaps a bit thin next to the Samatar story, and to my other favorite in the book.

This is Naomi Novik’s ‘‘Spinning Silver’’. As one might guess, Rumpelstiltskin in the base story. The conceit is that instead of spinning straw into gold, a moneylender might be seen as spinning sil­ver (a small amount of money) into a larger amount (gold). The narrator is the daughter of a poor vil­lage moneylender, too kindly to make a living. The daughter, however, has learned to harden her heart to her father’s clients’ troubles – which often enough are invented anyway – and under her stewardship the family has prospered – but at what cost? Especially when a fairy creature called the Staryk learns of her abilities, and insists that she spin his silver into gold. The mechanism she uses is clever, and the expected complications ensue, especially when the local Duke becomes involved. Novik very effectively layers the story with meaning – most notably the status of the moneylenders, who are (of course) Jewish – which points as well to a perhaps sometimes missed ele­ment of Rumpelstiltskin’s traditional portrayal. As with many of the stories in this book (and indeed in most contemporary fairy tale versions) the agency or lack thereof of the female characters is also central, and quite matter-of-factly and honestly treated.

Recommended Stories
‘‘A Fine Balance’’, Charlotte Ashley
(F&SF 11-12/16)
‘‘The Loud Table’’, Jonathan Carroll
(Tor.com 11/02/16)
‘‘My Generations Shall Praise’’,
Samantha Henderson (Interzone 11-12/16)
‘‘Spinning Silver’’, Naomi Novik
(The Starlit Wood)
‘‘The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the
White-Footed Gazelle’’, Sofia Samatar
(The Starlit Wood)
‘‘Prodigal’’, Gord Sellar (Analog 12/16)
‘‘A Pest Most Fiendish’’, Caighlan Smith
(Tor.com 11/16/16)
‘‘The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet’’, James Van Pelt (Analog 12/16)

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

Faren Miller reviews S. Jae-Jones

Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (St. Martin’s Griffin/Dunne 978-1-250-07921-3, $18.99, 438pp, hc) February 2017.

Back in December, I took an advance look at Thoraiya Dyer’s first novel Crossroads of Canopy. It turns out to be just part of a remarkable display of new talent in early 2017. Wintersong and The Bear and the Nightingale take inspiration from folktales, while Time’s Oldest Daughter reworks Miltonic myth, but they all explore the junctions between our lives and the cosmos of birth, death, and time – leaving room for the grotesque and the absurd.

The ‘‘Overture’’ to S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong is a kind of fairy tale with hints of poetry and song: ‘‘Once there was a little girl who played her music, for a little boy in the wood. She was small and dark, he was tall and fair, and the two of them made a fancy pair as they danced together … to the music the little girl heard in her head.’’ Things seem to change only for her, since he’s the Goblin King. She grows up working at the family inn, and finally stops going into the woods to play. When his last plea of Will you marry me? gets no reply, the silence feels like winter and this boy – Lord of Misrule and Winter King as he may be – intensely feels the cold.

Almost age 19 as Part One begins, Liesl (now the first-person narrator) thinks of goblins much as her grandmother does. When an errand takes her, and slightly younger sister Käthe, to a town square that turns into a Goblin Market, she sees the darkness beneath its glamour. Though such Markets are heralded in the first of many lead quotes from poems by Christina Rossetti, they don’t give the book a Pre-Raphaelite air. Unlike her famous brother Dante Gabriel (artist and advocate of the medievalesque), Christina mixes weirdness and passion in a way much closer to this book’s complex essence.

After the Goblin Market, tropes from folklore seize both sisters: Käthe becomes a new bride for the Goblin King, and Liesl seeks entry into his Underground realm in hope of reclaiming her. For that to happen, Liesl must regain memories (dreams?) in a place where time and identity are fluid, and tropes may change without warning. When the childhood friend she now perceives as ‘‘the tall, elegant stranger’’ invokes a shared past and asks her to resume their ‘‘game,’’ she recalls players of another kind: goblins who performed ‘‘the music I heard in my head’’ for the pair to dance to, ‘‘when I first began to compose.’’

What does the unearthly monarch have to do with the boy she once thought she knew? What does he really want? As Goblin King, Der Erlkönig, and Death (who would reduce the world to endless Winter without a long succession of human brides), he should be satisfied with either sister. As a young lady devoted to family (though brat enough to mention Käthe’s flaws openly), Liesl can’t imagine what special charm she might hold for him. Yet by now, both players have enough guises to change the nature of the game.

When the ‘‘boy’’ asked her to marry him, he didn’t call her Liesl, preferring the more formal version Elisabeth. Over the course of Wintersong we learn (as she does) how little what the king desires resembles the young woman who calls herself Elisabeth in the world outside his realm. He wants all of her: physical, mental, emotional, unique. This breaks down the barri­ers between romance and epic fantasy, creation myth and mystery – the changing faces in official portraits of the king.

Another key element is music, and one com­poser helped shape the book. Historically, ‘‘The Earl-King’’ (Der Erlkönig), ‘‘Unfinished Sym­phony’’, the title piece, and more are works by Franz Schubert. Jae-Jones plays her own games by reimagining and recasting him as the heroine’s young violin-virtuoso brother (not a composer in his own right), while still invoking the full pas­sion of the time when Baroque gave way to early Romantic – and the world changed.

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 Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com 978-0-7653-9311-1, $14.99, 166pp, tp) January 2017.

In one sense, Nnedi Okorafor’s characters are startling originals in SF – women or girls either African or of African descent, deeply aware of their cultural roots and struggling to balance the essential conservatism of tribal traditions with their own dreams of independence and self-sufficiency and with the sort of progressive futures offered through SF. In another, though, these same characters follow a familiar SF template: bright, precocious outsiders in a society that doesn’t fully appreciate them, often with special talents that are destined to help them bring about fundamental changes in that society. From Zahrah the Wind­seeker with her ‘‘dadalocks’’ through Onyesonwu in Who Fears Death, the Akata Witch, and most recently the Himba mathematical prodigy who defied her society and family to leave home and study at the legendary Oomza University in last year’s Binti, these are figures who share at least some literary DNA with Heinlein’s young heroes, Le Guin’s Ged, or even Van Vogt’s Slan (with their tendrils and psychic powers). In fact, when Binti, as a matter of survival, has her hair replaced by alien tentacles called okuoko in Binti, the result seems much more Slan-like than Medusa-like, even though the mythological reference was underlined by Okorafor’s decision to name her alien species Meduse.

Binti: Home opens about a year after that earlier story began as a quiet coming-of-age story, turned suddenly into a survival adventure, and ended with Binti playing a key role in a kind of revolution. Now she’s one of the few human students at the vast University, her closest friend the Meduse named Okwu who helped slaughter the rest of Binti’s crew in the first volume. Binti: Home lacks the outburst of extreme violence that so radically shifted the tone of the first part, and in fact mostly takes place back on Earth, where Binti returns for her ritual pilgrimage – and perhaps to discover the meaning of the edan, a mysterious and very old metal box which she had found in the desert before leaving for Oomza. Surprisingly, and partly to help her cope with her post-traumatic stress from the earlier story, she chooses to return on the same living spacecraft that brought her to Oomza, and to bring with her Okwu, the Meduse who spared her after the slaughter that had killed everyone else on board. But Binti, already an outsider as the first Himba to leave home for university and later as a rare human student at Oomza, now finds herself an outsider in her home village: people are suspicious of her loy­alty, her new tentacles, and especially of Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse to visit the land of the ruling Khoush in peacetime. Her family and her childhood friend Dele are almost brutal toward her, even blaming her for the decline in her father’s health.

When Binti accidentally witnesses a Night Masquerade (an actual ritual), though, her mis­sion on Earth changes. The Desert People, long regarded by the Himba as primitive and possibly neurologically damaged because of their odd arm movements, take her along on a pilgrimage of their own, during which she meets the same tall woman who had confronted her in the desert when she first uncovered her edan. What she learns about the origin of that device, the true nature of the Desert People, her own heritage, and an ancient golden people called the Zinariya, alters her understanding of her own identity in a far more dramatic way than did her alteration at the hands of the Meduse or her year of study at Oomza Uni, and opens up her story in ways that may seem familiar to readers of Okorafor’s earlier tales of self-discovery and empowerment, but that, very satisfactorily, moves Binti’s story far beyond the more conventional space adventure with which it began.

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 Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai (Dutton 978-1-101-98513-7, $26, 384pp, hardcover February 7, 2017

When a writer from outside the genre decides to write SF (and it gets marketed as mainstream), they usually favor a subset of stefnal tropes, usually the softer ones: time travel, dystopia, or counterfactual. You seldom see, say, a writer like Martin Amis attempting an alien invasion story, or an Alice Hoffman dealing with, oh, undersea colonization or galactic empires. Artificial intelligence might perhaps be a slightly hard-edged exception, as in Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2. But that’s because it allows for exploration of such classic humanistic themes as the nature of the soul, Frankensteinian hubris, etc.

Of all the favored fantastika tropes beloved by the generally mimetically inclined author, time travel has lately been experiencing a mini-boom, as with The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (review here). The latest entry in this trend, All Our Wrong Todays, happens also to be a debut novel. And it proves to be a great and exceptional find, so let’s give it a gander.

The first thing to note is that although Mastai might very well have been raised outside strict genre borders, he exhibits a playful fluency with, and is creatively savvy about, all the genre appurtenances and furniture. His does not make a single misstep with his speculations or language. This degree of sophistication probably just goes to show that the tropes and novums of the field have thoroughly saturated our culture to the point that inside/outside distinctions are becoming less and less meaningful.

Another thing to note before diving into the plot is that Kurt Vonnegut is referenced admiringly early on by our hero-narrator, and this tip of the hat induces us to read the book as deliberately Vonnegutian in purpose and tone—a not unfair description, I think. Its short chapters, its punchy, demotic, self-denigrating prose, its tragicomic ambiance resulting in genuine catharsis and epiphany, and its general fascination with the ways humans can screw up—all these are pure Vonnegut.

Here’s the scenario. The year of our opening action is 2016, but a 2016 on an alternate timeline. This particular year resembles the future of Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” or that utopian mirage depicted in George Clooney’s Tomorrowland. A Campbellian “yesterday’s tomorrow” made real. This world got there because in 1965, an infinite free power source, the Goettreider Engine, was developed.

Our protagonist is Tom Barren, son of a genius named Victor Barren. Tom is kind of a schlub and nowhere guy, all too conscious of his inferiority in the light of his dominant genius father. The elder Barren, by the way, has recently invented time travel. Just to give his pitiful offspring something to do, Professor Barren enlists his son as a backup chrononaut. Through a long sequence of events, which I shan’t spoil, Tom becomes the first person to employ the machine—unofficially—and he journeys back to the day when the Goettreider Engine was first tested. He manages to botch the test and taint the Goettreider Engine with permanent failure, thus erasing his own timeline.

But Tom himself, miraculously, does not pop out of existence as part of the aborted future. Instead, he wakes up in our timeline, inhabiting the body of his doppelganger, John Barren. The two avatars share impossibly divergent, bipolar memories—John’s life has followed a vastly different course, naturally, than Tom’s—but Tom seems temporarily the dominant personality. Naturally, no one believes his tale. So he sets out to prove the truth of his assertions. This involves tracking down Lionel Goettreider, and attempting to reboot his pivotal invention. But what Tom discovers is that his native timeline is not the only one striving to be reborn.

Mastai achieves any number of excellent things here. Enumerated in no particular order:

He portrays the disjunction between Tom’s native 2016 and our version—“political chaos, social dysfunction, technological incompetence, and putrid toxicity”—with acid humor and insight. And then at the end he manages to invert the value judgments about which timeline is better and offers more potential for the human future. Actually, not to give too much away, the winning solution is a hybrid of both timelines.

Next, Mastai conjures up a great character in the person of Tom, a fellow of no obvious great talents yet whose heart is in the right place—at least by book’s end. Tom’s love for Penelope/Penny Weschler in both timelines is his ultimate redeeming feature. Additionally, a complicated romance involving Goettreider runs fruitfully in parallel.

Third, we get all the elaborate paradoxes and causal loops that any great time travel novel must offer. Mastai lives up to classics such as Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps.”

Lastly, Tom’s musings and eventual enlightenment on the nature of science-fictional or futurism-derived dreaming and striving taps deep into the core of how we chart and plan and reify humanity’s course. Mastai believes we have an obligation to pilot a course “between futurist manifest destiny and apocalyptic ruin.”

His comedic, clever, sometimes silly, sometimes tragic, and ultimately morally resonant tale illustrates exactly the kind of value and utility science fiction has always delivered, and must continue to deliver. His next novel is eagerly awaited, on this or any other continuum.

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 Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy, by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager 978-0062389572, $24.99, 432pp, hardcover February 28, 2017

Richard Kadrey’s newest novel is a fast-arriving—and fast-paced, fast-talking, fast-flummoxing—sequel to 2016’s The Everything Box. In reviewing that series debut for the Barnes & Noble Review, I said in part: “The novel is gonzo, ribald, hilarious, zippy and innovative with its magical apparatus and tricks. If Donald Westlake had been a dilettante follower of Satanist Anton LaVey, humanity might have previously been gifted with such a book. Or if Jack Benny’s under-regarded film The Horn Blows at Midnight were remade by the Coen Brothers, a similar funhouse ride might ensue.”

Is it possible for Kadrey to strike gold twice? Let’s see!

At the close of the last adventure, our freelance thief, Charlie “Coop” Cooper, specialist in purloining the outré and uncanny, congenitally immune to most magics, had succeeded in thwarting the apocalypse. All well and good, although saving civilization proved not to be particularly lucrative. And in doing so, he had come to the attention of the Department of Peculiar Science, a classified agency whose remit overlapped his skills and interests. More or less forced to work for them, or face jail time, along with his partner Morty, Coop at least has the incentive that Giselle, now a fellow operative, has again become his lover. But that barely suffices to cover his annoyance with Woolrich, his demanding boss.

Now Woolrich has a fresh and lame assignment for Coop and team. Steal a low-rent Egyptian mummy—named Harkhuf—from a second-rate museum: the Brian Z. Pierson Museum of Art, Antiquities, and Folderol. It’s hardly worthy of Coop’s skills, but he irritably gets with the program. And this is where the trouble starts. Harkhuf proves to be sentient and maliciously alive. He is on a quest for his ancient mummy inamorata, Shemetet. Once they are reunited, they plan to conquer the world.

But not all of this is apparent to Coop and company at the outset. So they bumble through the seemingly inconsequential job, with Coop acquiring a curse from Harkhuf that results in such unpalatable demands as being summoned from his home by the mummy, while clad in only his Star Wars underwear, and giving the whole neighborhood a lingering glimpse of his naked butt.

Outside Coop’s inner circle of pals and co-workers, there are a half-dozen other troupes of farcical players, whom Kadrey intercuts into the main narrative, before finally blending all the subplots together in a milkshake of madness. There’s a group of rich kids who fancy themselves to be eco-terrorists. There’s an elderly faded fortune-teller named Minerva—looking like “Stevie Nicks’s stunt double”—and her buddy Kellar, who want in on the supernatural mummy action. Down in the mailroom of DOPS, Nelson—a mook or zombie with a grudge against Coop—is plotting his own rebellion, while abusing his assistant McCloud. Sheriff Wayne Jr. is busy making auteur-style commercials for his car lot, where the climax of the book will occur. Froehlich, head of security at the Pierson museum, has managed to become enthralled to Harkhuf, and is serving as his mortal catspaw, while introducing the mummy to the wonders of South American TV game shows. Vengeful DOPS auditors Night and Knight are on the track of missing office supplies. And down in the Extra-Confidential Inscrutabilis Unit of DOPS, buddies Vargas and Zulawski are about to undergo some very chilling manifestations.

This tornado-cum-whirlpool of comedic insanity blends together into a very satisfactory and surprising escapade. Kadrey juggles everything like a six-armed master, dovetailing all the loose bits you swear could not be connected.

The first thing to mention when comparing this novel to its predecessor is the nature of its novum: here, classic, as opposed to revolutionary in The Everything Box. The first book’s occult MacGuffin was more devious and unprecedented than this book’s Universal-Monsters-style Egyptian revenant. Given the spate of mummy movies within recent memory, from the Brendan Fraser franchise to The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and a Tom Cruise mummy reboot for 2017, one might at first be a tad dismayed that Kadrey did not center his tale on a less well-handled trope. But as Rudy Rucker famously says, such immemorial ideas are “power chords” that allow each new writer to riff according to his or her muse. A handy armature for tale-telling.

And so once the reader has acclimatized himself or herself to that conceptual hurdle, we find four major aspects to savor.

There is the acidic social commentary. Set in Los Angeles, the book is replete with instances of all the cultural detritus of La La Land. Much as Ron Goulart itemized and savaged California of the 1960s in his classic fiction (albeit by casting the contemporary stuff into a near-future setting), so Kadrey takes the piss out of the zany customs of his home state. And he remains always topical. “Ramsey Fitzgerald’s life was the rags-to-riches story of a man who started out with only a few hundred million dollars of family money and managed to turn it into even more hundreds of millions by sheer force of will, insider trading, and blackmail, a formula he referred to in his autobiography as the ‘Torquemada Reach Around.’”

Then there is the classic screwball comedy. Kadrey has a gift for staging improbable disasters and cascades of events involving elephants, specters, malicious mice and a dozen other components. The improbable ridiculousness of it all evokes much laughter. “A team of six people stripped Coop down and covered him from head to toe in a clear gel so that he could squeeze into a skintight carbon-fiber suit that made him feel less like a secret government agent and more like a bratwurst having second thoughts about his life choices, his sanity, and whether he would be able to keep down those chili cheese fries he’d eaten earlier.”

Third on the list of enjoyments are the character portraits and interactions. All these folks are as unique and quirky as real humans, and their prickly dealings with each other are as far from genteel and politically correct as possible. I have not yet even mentioned Dr. Lupinsky, who resides in a mobile mecha framework encasing an antique TV whose screen manifests the good doctor’s avatar: a winsome cat.

Lastly, and possibly the biggest attraction of the book, is the sheer language. Like S. J. Perelman writing for the Marx Brothers, combined with Raymond Chandler’s propensity for over-the-top similes and metaphors, Kadrey’s language pops off the page, whether as dialogue or description. There’s a handful of quotable sentences on every page. “Nelson began to recite a language that sounded like someone trying to plunger out a toilet full of creamed corn… Coop said a word that was just as odd as the ones in Nelson’s recitation, only Coop’s word sounded like someone dropping unripe watermelons down a spiral staircase.”

Before closing my review of this absurdly entertaining and entertainingly absurd urban fantasy on that note, let me just highlight the employment of that adjective “spiral.” Not just any old staircase, but a spiral staircase. That’s the true touch of a genius.

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.

Faren Miller reviews Laura Eve

The Graces, Laure Eve (Abrams Amulet 978-1-4197-21236, $18.95, 342pp, hc) September 2016. Cover by Spencer Charles.

What is myth for the new millennium? In The Graces, Laure Eve confronts what’s left of the old with something that might take its place (no galactic empires required). The teenage narrator is new to school in a small town far enough from England’s great cities to have woodlands and wild seas nearby, show traces of its pagan past, and host a family of ‘‘witches.’’ The youngest Graces (male and female twins Fenrin and Thalia approaching graduation, sister Summer a few years behind) move through their fellow students ‘‘like sleek fish, ripples in their wake, stares following their backs and their hair.’’

They rouse an even more urgent attraction in the girl describing them in those terms, and it swiftly becomes intriguing. She gives her ‘‘secret name’’ as River Page but offers little further comment. What draws her to the Graces? It lurks in ‘‘the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.’’ While she chronicles budding friendship (and a passion for the boy that goes beyond his role as ‘‘school Pan’’), the entertain­ing details onstage can’t keep us from sensing other forces at work behind the scenes.

River notices things the Graces miss. A wall-carving prompts her to wonder, ‘‘Was it a real being I could talk to? … What did it think about humans? What did it know?’’ Thalia says it’s ‘‘just a local nature god’’ from a part of town where ‘‘old stuff hangs around.’’ Waiting for them at a standing stone, River imagines all it must have seen, ‘‘blood on its hands.’’ Yet when Fenrin asks Summer why she chose it for the rendezvous, she answers with a mental shrug (‘‘It’s on the way….’’). Nevertheless, their spells, rituals and celebrations seem to give River her only chance to find a place: with them, beyond the mundane. Even the ongoing threat of a Grace curse prompts her to tinker with another rite.

Stark mystery returns at the end of Part One, when a Lammas party leads to one man’s disap­pearance, and likely drowning. Part Two deals with the pain, and its source. Only now do we begin to see what the three Graces learned from River while she made her way into their world. It leads to scenes where a moment’s action and reaction goad power to manifest again – and see itself in full for the first time.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Norman Spinrad

The People’s Police, by Norman Spinrad (Tor 978-0765384270, $27.99, 288pp, hardcover) February 2017

Closing in fast and vigorously on his fifty-fifth year of fiction writing (that anniversary will occur in 2018, dating from his first sale in 1963), Norman Spinrad remains an irreplaceable voice in the SF field. Critic, provocateur, daring dreamer, he deserves a prominence even higher than what the field has already accorded him. Visitors to this very venue will have seen me recommending him as the next SFWA Grand Master, so I think there will be no surprise when I report that I was very excited at the arrival of his new novel. Let’s have a look at it!

The book is set in the city of New Orleans in the very near future, and while the technological surround is more or less unchanged, the sociopolitical environment is rapidly mutating, giving Spinrad a chance to do what he likes to do best, as seen in his classic Bug Jack Barron: mess around satirically with all the hot-button topics of the moment.

We open with a chapter narrated in the first-person by one Jean-Baptiste Lafitte, local saloonkeeper, whorehouse owner, and all-around anything-for-a-buck businessman. (Lafitte’s intimate presence and point-of-view will recur at intervals throughout the novel, usually in separate chapters, but sometimes in the middle of other sections.) But despite his venality, he owes an underlying sense of civic loyalty and virtue to his unique hometown and its downtrodden masses, and he knows its history and probable future inside out—knowledge he shares with the readers in some discursive backstory.

This narrative tactic, it should be noted at the outset, reflects Spinrad’s approach for the majority of the novel. The story is not dramatized so much as it is recounted, in a quasi-historical or almost journalistic or tall-tale-spinning fashion. We do get some good you-are-there dramatic set-pieces, but for the most part we are listening either to Lafitte’s voice or that of an omniscient raconteur. Now, this mode violates the current preference for “show not tell” that most SF and most naturalistic fiction follows. But it hews to an older kind of pre-modern story-telling that remains perfectly enjoyable. And given the need to chart socioeconomic and cultural forces not apprehensible by the average person in the midst of living this tale, I think Spinrad made the right choice.

In any case, we next learn the life history of one Luke Martin, a low-level cop, not particularly ethical or smart, but possessing a certain hard-earned street wisdom. After making his rep by riding herd, somewhat illegally, on the thugs and gangbangers of the Alligator Swamp portion of the city, Luke has married well and gotten some more genteel duties, such as serving eviction notices. Then comes the moment, almost Phildickian, when he is accidentally (?) handed the paperwork to kick himself and his family out of his own domicile!

This is the triggering event that will lead to the formation of the “People’s Police.” Egged on by Lafitte and various other players, the city cops rebel en masse, with Luke becoming the front man for the cause of economic justice. Soon the demands and disruptions of the cops will extend far beyond mere matters of eviction.

Highly relevant to this crusade is one Mama Legba, the city’s prime public proponent of the Voodoo religion—despite being a white girl with shallow roots. Mama Legba’s power stems from her genuine abilities to host the supernatural loa entities, whose antics have even garnered her own TV show. With Legba throwing in with the renegade cops, a powerful hurricane of insurrection is born. And with the Louisiana governor’s election right around the corner, who knows how far this storm could travel?

Spinrad revels in the juicy, sleazy, all-too-human Machiavellian machinations of all the parties, the rebels and the establishment alike. His ability to chart thrust and counter-thrust is akin to that of some television political strategist following the twists and turns of national affairs. Certainly he echoes the savvy work of one of his great Sixties peers, John Brunner, in this regard. And, like Brunner, he never forgets the microcosmic side of affairs, giving all his characters moments of emotional and intellectual vividness and depth.

The notion of a roots rebellion creating a “temporary autonomous zone” (Peter Lamborn Wilson’s term) is hardly a new one in SF, going back at least as far as Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But Spinrad proves that he is not stuck in some Sixties counterculture mindset, as he adds up-to-the-minute aspects of media coverage, organizational innovations, etc., to his rebellion. Yet at the same time the tale has an eternal aspect—especially in its quasi-tragic ending—that harks back to every failed utopia from Classical times onward.

Spinrad barrels though his fable with a caustic, cynical-yet-hopeful, wise-ass mouth and mentality. Yet the tale is never didactic or righteously self-congratulatory toward any side. Spinrad is too cognizant of the failed, fallen state of the human animal to expect or demand holiness from any individual, even when that individual is ostensibly doing “good.”

This book shares its heart and soul with two great films on similar themes: A Face in the Crowd and The Great McGinty. Spinrad is more like wildman Preston Sturges, director of the latter film, than like Frank Capra, whose sincerity sometimes devolved into cornball simplicities. With a sympathetic eye for all human foibles and aspirations, Spinrad, employing the same sharp satiric scalpel used by Tom Wolfe at his best, delivers parables and parodies of our uncivil civic sphere.

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.

The Boy Who Fell to Earth: A Review of The Space Between Us

by Gary Westfahl

Like a NASA rocket slowly rising from the surface, The Space Between Us takes a long time to achieve escape velocity and soar through space; however, if you can endure one of the most boring opening sequences in any film I can recall, and about an hour of trite melodramatic sequences interspersed with inauthentic personal drama, its last thirty minutes are actually quite enjoyable, even moving. Whether it is a film worth seeing, then, hinges upon whether you most value the journey, or the destination.

In some respects, the film resembles what might have happened if someone had resolved to finally get a film version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) green-lighted by excising all of its controversial elements – the sex, the politics, the religion, the social satire. One would be left with the story of a pioneering female astronaut, Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery), who gives birth to a son on Mars and immediately dies, leaving her son to be raised by others (here, human astronauts, not intelligent Martians). As a young adult, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is finally able to come to Earth and soon achieves a satisfying romantic relationship with a teenager named Tulsa (Britt Robertson). So described, one imagines the resulting film would become a sensitive, coming-of-age drama involving a troubled youth confronting a challenging adult world, the sort of production that regularly wows audiences at the Sundance Festival and garners Oscar nominations (such as, for example, Moonlight [2016]); and at times, it is evident that director Peter Chelsom and writers Allan Loeb, Richard Barton Lewis, and Stewart Schill were striving to create a film of precisely that nature.

Unfortunately, The Space Between Us was also going to be a science fiction film, and everyone in Hollywood knows that science fiction films have to be filled with action; so, making the same mistake that doomed Tomorrowland (2015 – review here), Chelsom and company dutifully inserted car crashes, an explosion, and several absurd chase scenes – the most risible one involving a car and a vintage biplane. Thankfully, though, Gardner and Tulsa are never called upon to punch out any of their opponents, since their chief pursuers – former project director Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and mothering astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Cugino) – only have Gardner’s best interests at heart, seeking to capture him solely to protect him from the potentially fatal effects of living in Earth’s oppressive gravity. Further, in order to make all of Gardner and Tulsa’s daring escapes even barely plausible, the film necessarily posits that NASA has been keeping Gardner’s existence a secret for sixteen years, hindering their efforts to locate and seize him. Yet despite some sporadic, halfhearted explanations, the film never manages to articulate a truly convincing reason for all this secrecy, which is being maintained solely to keep the plot in motion. In addition, it is a Hollywood truism that the course of true love never runs smooth, so despite their long-time online friendship, Gardner and Tulsa must constantly bicker, for one idiotic reason after another, generating additional “conflict” in the interludes between their exciting escapades.

Instead of providing viewers with frenetic chases and contrived arguments, which they have all seen many times before, The Space Between Us would have been better advised to focus on more original material – namely, how Earth would be perceived by a visitor from an alien planet. There are only scattered scenes of this nature: while Tulsa is admiring a vast canyon, Gardner is fascinated by a caterpillar – for he has seen many barren landscapes before, but he has never seen a caterpillar; he relishes the first time he feels rain hitting his face; and he is startled by the appearance of a horse, recalling a similar moment in Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth (1975) when a visitor from Titan sees a horse and describes it as his “first Monster from Outer Space.” If he had not been trapped in his own version of The Fugitive, constantly on the run, Gardner could have experienced more of Earth’s myriad wonders, visiting museums and zoos, skin-diving to observe the wonders of the sea (like Clarke’s protagonist), enjoying a snowfall as well as rain, learning how to dance or roller-skate – the possibilities are endless. But, the filmmakers clearly thought, why bore audiences with such mundane moments when you can thrill them by showing a departing biplane being chased by a car?

Along with the competing impulses to develop its characters and to keep them in constant motion, this film is also conflicted about one of its central settings, the planet Mars. In telling the story of a boy who was born and raised on Mars, the film should logically spend a lot of time describing his upbringing on Mars – and films like The Martian (2015 – review here) demonstrate that one can craft involving dramas about surviving in that harsh environment. However, although the film is willing to devote a considerable amount of screen time to Shepherd’s remarkably uninspiring inspirational speech about the need to colonize Mars, and although it also bothers to include scenes of a routine spacecraft launch and orbital docking, The Space Between Us actually seems anxious to hurry Gardner away from Mars and get him to the familiar setting of Earth, so he can start running away from Shepherd and get together with Tulsa. All one gets of Mars is some glimpses of a stark orange landscape and the interiors of the astronauts’ dwellings. The film also argues repeatedly that it was cruel to force Gardner to live in a horrible place like Mars, requiring the authorities to bring him back to Earth, seemingly the only place really suitable for human life. Thus, like Gravity (2013 – review here) and The Martian, The Space Between Us is a film about space travel that subtly argues against space travel.

Another problem with the film is the character of Nathaniel Shepherd – who is not really a character at all, but rather a chess piece that the screenwriters arbitrarily move in any direction that the plot requires at the moment. Sometimes he is bold and visionary; sometimes he is cowardly and petty-minded. He can be warm and compassionate; he can also be cold and calculating. He has spent his entire life obsessed with colonizing space; yet he completely abandons the space program because of the death of one astronaut. He is devoted above all else to ensuring Gardner’s safety; yet his reckless pursuit at one point almost causes his death. Confronted with the impossible task of making this collage of contradictions seem like a real person, the normally reliable Oldman understandably provides an inept, unpersuasive performance, constantly posturing and hyperventilating; one dreads his frequent appearances, inasmuch as he commands an inordinate amount of attention in a film that should be focusing on its youthful protagonists. The illuminating contrast here is to Ender’s Game (2013 – review here) another Asa Butterfield film that also featured a major star, Harrison Ford, but wisely relegated him to a supporting role.

But as I said, all of these infelicities dissipate in the last part of the film, which I can generally discuss without offering any “spoilers.” First, Gardner’s declining health fortuitously means that he is no longer in any shape to frantically run away, forcing the film to finally slow down its pace and eliminate all of its verbal sparring. Shepherd is virtually invisible, further allowing Gardner and Tulsa to blossom as likable characters, and when he ultimately reappears, he begins acting, for the first time, in a manner that actually makes sense. And the final scenes are firmly supportive of a continuing human presence on Mars – though in an understated way, avoiding the blatant propaganda that marred the final scenes of The Martian.

Regardless of their flaws, I am always heartened by the appearance of films that deal realistically with space travel – though such films are also regularly criticized for scientific errors, as was the case with Gravity and The Martian. In some respects, this film’s scientific accuracy can be praised: it addresses an issue that Heinlein ignored, that a person raised on Mars would struggle to adjust to Earth’s gravity; a humorous sign that Gardner observes on Mars – “Earth 140,000,000 miles –>” – accurately provides the average distance between the planets; and the way that Gardner’s bones are strengthened before he travels to Earth – with “carbon nanotubes” – is soberly regarded as a realistic possibility. I do wonder how Sarah, when she was nine months pregnant, managed to fit into her spacesuit – one issue, I suppose, that NASA must address in the future. But the film’s most conspicuous flaw is depicting instantaneous online communication between Gardner on Mars and Tulsa on Earth, which is impossible; as Clarke noted in Imperial Earth, “Earth could talk to Mars – but its words would always take at least three minutes to get there, and the reply would take just as long.” However, in this age of short attention spans, one cannot imagine that Tulsa would put up with an online correspondent who took six minutes to respond to each of her messages; in addition, in order to explain the delay, Gardner would have to admit that he was on Mars, eliminating one pretext for the tension between them on Earth – that she doesn’t believe he is from Mars. The needs of the story, then, outweigh the needs of the science.

Some issues also emerge if one carefully examines the film’s chronology, since it seems that the screenwriters didn’t. It was spectacularly unwise to set the year of the first Mars landing as 2018, since such an achievement is surely at least a decade away. We are told that a twelve-year-old Shepherd wrote a letter to the President following a space disaster; since writing about the 2003 Columbia tragedy would make him 27 years old at the time the film starts – much too young to be in charge of a space mission – he must have been responding to the Challenger tragedy, which means he was born around 1974, was 44 years old at the time of the launch, and 60 years old sixteen years later, when Gardner comes to Earth. Yet he always looks about the same age, which is older than 44 and younger than 60. A tombstone says that Sarah was born in 1984, making her extraordinarily young, at the age of 34, to be commanding a mission to Mars. And if most of the film takes place in 2034, one would expect something to look different – yet everything on Earth looks exactly the same as it does in 2017. The film’s only futuristic touches are some advanced spacecraft; Gardner’s robot companion on Mars, Centaur (who annoyingly sounds exactly like Star Wars’s C-3PO); and a preponderance of transparent laptops and tablets (yet transparent screens are already available, and transparent keyboards cannot be far away). Oh yes – and the film imagines that a future Las Vegas will include a hotel modeled on Shanghai, a nod no doubt to its Chinese producers.

Of course, instead of quibbling about background details, the filmmakers clearly want audiences to focus on the messages they are placing in the foreground. It is hard to ignore, for example, the film’s religious references. The mission to colonize Mars is called the Genesis Project; before journeying to Mars, Gardner learns that his mother visited a Shaman Neka (Gil Birmingham), and she announces before leaving that “courage is fear that has said its prayers”; both her and Gardner’s last name, Elliot, is a Hebrew word for “God”; Gardner’s first name might reference the Garden of Eden (and he is observed tending a greenhouse garden on Mars); the Psalms remind us that the Lord is our Shepherd; and in ways I won’t describe that most viewers will fortunately miss, the final scenes suggest that Gardner is something of a Christ figure. Most blatantly, Gardner likens himself to the protagonist of the 1987 film Wings of Desire, an angel who “fell to Earth” because he is in love with a mortal woman. The message from all of this is clear: Mars is Heaven. Strangely enough, there is a slight scientific justification for the idea, since Clarke also repeatedly maintained that people living in lower gravity would have longer lifespans, rendering them somewhat godlike figures; yet the film never raises this possibility.

One way that people can effect their heavenly aspirations is to learn how to fly; and in addition to images of imagined people with wings, and astronauts floating in zero gravity, the film provides a capsule history of human flight. One observes a fleet of colorful balloons; the aforementioned biplane, which Gardner is thrilled to ride in; a helicopter; a passenger jet; and several types of spaceships. Traveling to distant Mars, then, is merely a natural extension of an ancient desire to rise about the ground. There is also the suggestion that conquering Mars would be analogous to the conquest of the American West: the Martian colony is called “East Texas,” and in his travels, Gardner replicates the movements of western settlers by going from Florida to Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and California (while accompanied by a girl named after Tulsa, Oklahoma).

It is incongruous, though, that the film is also dedicated to a decidedly less ambitious goal; for in keeping with its title, the film provides Tulsa with dialogue noting that most people maintain “guards and shields” to avoid expressing their true feelings, a habit that must be abandoned so that people can be “happy.” One way to facilitate self-expression, it seems, is to learn to play a musical instrument, as Tulsa writes songs on the piano and Gardner starts playing a harmonica. But to celebrate “expressing your true feelings” as the main purpose of life is moving into the territory of the Care Bears, and it also does not accord with everyone’s ongoing determination to keep Gardner’s existence a secret. As another uplifting theme, the film begins by emphasizing the importance of human “courage,” but the idea is quickly dropped, as no one in the rest of the film really does anything that is particularly courageous. And the film briefly reinforces the stereotype that scientists are unemotional when Gardner observes that people on Mars don’t kiss – they “just studied ground samples.” Actual scientists do both things.

As I discuss this film, Arthur C. Clarke keeps coming to mind, I think, because no other science fiction writer was more devoted to telling stories about ordinary people living ordinary lives in the future; and that is what The Space Between Us should have been doing. Indeed, the film could also be interpreted as what might have happened if Hollywood had undertaken to adapt Imperial Earth – changing a visitor from Titan into a visitor from Mars (“Who’s heard of Titan?”); shifting the setting to a more familiar near future; and replacing the intriguing mystery that Clarke’s hero must solve on Earth with dollops of romance and fast-paced adventure. But no space between us is vaster than the distance between what science fiction writers like Clarke are inclined to do, and what contemporary filmmakers are inclined to do.

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), and William Gibson (2013); 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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Ellen Klages

Passing Strange, Ellen Klages (Tor.com 978-0-7653-8952-7, $14.99, 222pp, tp) January 2017. Cover by Gregory Manchess

As satisfying as Ellen Klages’s YA historicals The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace are, in terms of SF and fantasy she belongs to that select but important group of well-received short fiction writers whose readers would be thrilled at the prospect of seeing her unique vi­sion at novel length. Passing Strange isn’t quite that, but as one of the longer entries in Tor.com’s consistently impressive novella series, it comes close, approaching the wordage of a good many SF paperbacks from the 1950s or 1960s. More im­portant than its length, however, is how it displays Klages’s various skills as a writer – the meticulous historical research into San Francisco history, the intricate plotting and ‘‘forbidden’’ romance that we saw in ‘‘Time Gypsy’’, the judicious use of magic that we saw in ‘‘Basement Magic’’ and ‘‘Caligo Lane’’ (whose magical origami shows up again here), the strong, creative, educated women who face professional discrimination even as they manage to keep their sexual orientation hidden. One of the circle of women that form the support system at the center of the story is a Ph.D. in mathematics who can only get a job as a lecturer; another, Helen, is a lawyer who has to supplement her income dancing in a Chinese-themed tourist trap nightclub; another is a once-aspiring writer expelled from Wellesley after getting caught in bed with her girlfriend.

The central figure of this group, however, is Loretta Haskel, a successful pulp magazine cover artist modeled on Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales (here called Weird Menace), whose sensual, lurid covers were viewed as borderline pornography. Decades later, original ‘‘L. Haskel’’ paintings are rare collector’s items, though so little is known about her that collectors assume she was a male artist. As the story begins, the now hundred-year-old Helen, who was Haskel’s model as well as lawyer, ‘‘on the last Monday of her life,’’ retrieves a sealed box hidden deep in Chinatown and presents it to a rare-book dealer. The sealed box is what frames the larger narra­tive, which is partly a love letter to historical San Francisco, complete with an extended visit to the 1940 ‘‘Magic City’’ World’s Fair (where Haskel’s friend Diego Rivera is completing a mural), and partly a tense portrait of what it meant to survive as a gay person in the 1940s, with lesbian night­clubs that served at once as refuges and as traps for prurient tourists.

The magic of these opening chapters derives mostly from this evocative historical setting and from the stories of this circle of mutually sup­portive women, especially the growing romance between Haskel and Emily, the refugee from a well-to-do family who had been expelled from Wellesley. At the same time, though, we’re offered glimpses of the real magical powers that will eventually converge in an ingenious resolution after a figure from Haskel’s past threatens her life with Emily: Franny, described as a witch, can fold paper in a way that alters real-world geography; Polly, a refugee from England, worked as an as­sistant to her magician father; and Haskel herself owns an old family necklace anchored by a stone said to have magical properties. Together, they concoct a scheme at once wildly romantic and thoroughly satisfying, and that moves Passing Strange into the company of fantasies like Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jenny, which explore the power of art over time. Passing Strange may be the most fully developed and richly detailed of all of Klages’s stories for adults, but it never feels like it needs to be a longer novel, and despite the fascinating side-trips into the World’s Fair or those painfully exploitative nightclubs, its plot unfolds with the same clarity and focus we’ve come to expect from Klages’s stories. This may be, and probably is, her finest short work to date.

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