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Paul Di Filippo reviews Gordon Eklund

Cosmic Fusion, by Gordon Eklund (Wildside Press 978-1479423859, $19.99, 526pp, trade paperback) October 2016

Few occasions give more pleasure to a reader than witnessing the unexpected return to print of a long-silent author who once had a rewarding, admirable career. This time around, the satisfaction derives from the appearance of Cosmic Fusion, by Gordon Eklund. Eklund had a solid run once, starting with his first story sale in 1970 and up to about 1989. I certainly collected and enjoyed his work during this period. Then he left the field, and writing in general. That era of his departure was nigh onto thirty years ago, and his voice has been missed. All credit, then, to Eklund for revivifying himself, and to Wildside Press for bringing the new work to us.

Now, admittedly, this novel is a “trunk” book. As Eklund states in his preface, it was written circa 1973-1982, contracted for, paid for, then never published, for reasons unknown. (Although Eklund makes some speculations.) Now it’s been dusted off and polished a tad, and finally gets a public viewing.

The book, Eklund promises, is one of those kind of SF novels that don’t really seem to get written much anymore. Syncretic, philosophical, all-encompassing, jam-packed with every notion the writer could squeeze in. Somehow emblematic of a whole worldview or the zeitgeist. Maybe the first such book was Charles Harness’s The Paradox Men. Bester’s two classics fall a bit into this realm. Delany’s Nova fixed the template. Then we had Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and George Zebrowski’s Macrolife. A fantasy equivalent might be Crowley’s Little, Big; while today Kim Stanley Robinson dips partially into the mode with a book like 2312. One might think of these titles as the SF analogue to “The Great American Novel.” And just as “The Great American Novel” seldom gets attempted any longer—for reasons of cultural fragmentation and multiplicity of voices—so too has this type of SF novel faded from the scene.

Upon reading, Cosmic Fusion does not resemble the titles I’ve cited so much as it resembles a couple of other strains of science fiction from about its era of composition. That would be the Vonnegut-style tragicomic homage to SF, and the High Camp Anarchist SF of Buckaroo Banzai and the Illuminatus Trilogy. As such it has an unmistakable ambiance of that period, while still remaining fun and fresh and relevant—especially since folks really aren’t writing this kind of book much any more.

The narrative, we shall soon see, is rife with allusions to past SF.
First up is a Doc Savage scenario. Our hero is one Desmond Blue, a giant of a fellow who is dubbed the world’s greatest detective (echoes of Holmes and Batman here) and who has a trio of followers much like Doc did with is five-man crew. There’s Gordon Schwerner, a genius yet maladjusted biologist raised as an orphan by robots. Schwerner happens to have succeeded in creating life from scratch, resulting in two beautiful androgynous androids named Jai and Lai, who will figure in the plot. Next is Alfie Jarrett, a kind of tough-guy hood. Third is Peter Mark, part cyborg along the lines of DC Comics’ Robotman. (There’s kind of a Doom Patrol vibe to this setup as well.) Blue also boasts three gorgeous female secretaries, in the manner of Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw.

Blue and his crew inhabit a post-apocalyptic Earth. What happened, as backstory, is this: aliens came, destroyed much infrastructure; and murdered then inexplicably revived millions of people, now known as “spooks.” (Blue’s wife was tragically one such victim.) Naturally, all national and international power relationships and polities were shot to hell and reconfigured by the alien invasion. For instance, there are independent “spook reservations.” What we have in the USA is a kind of “Fragmented America” like the scenario famously patented by Ron Goulart circa 1968. The characters take all this merely for granted.

In a fallow period, Blue is intrigued when he learns that a secretive agency has perfected a time-viewer. But in looking at photos taken with the device, he notes anomalous figures in several scenes that alert him to the presence of actual time travelers who are warping history. These villains are known as the Sect, and Blue sets out to track them down and stymie them.

He dispatches Alfie to San Francisco, a city in ruins which is now the private preserve of millionaire John Hartford Hennesey (and his beautiful daughter Tess). Hennesey, it eventuates, is building the first FTL spaceship. The discerning reader quickly detects parallels with Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon.”

Peter, meanwhile, is off in Winesap, Illinois, a bucolic community where book-burning by firemen is the rule, and a frustrated SF writer named Roy Goldman is the local black sheep.

Schwerner ends up in Africa where, among other exploits, he meets the four disabled children who together form a gestalt personality known as the Linkage. (Cue Sturgeon, natch.)

Blue himself jaunts all over the planet, eventually ending up at the hidden colony known as Futura, in deepest Tibet. Might I mention here the presence of an intelligent computer named Isaac that specializes in psychohistory? The mystery and menace of the Sect will be defused, but not in the manner expected. A Kilgore Trout-style coda wraps things up.

Eklund maintains these four separate threads with brio and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Farcical exploits of a Marx Brothers nature proliferate wildly. Here’s a sample of the deadpan yet hyperbolic prose and style.

As Desmond Blue hastened through the nighttime streets of old Kabul accompanied by the disguised dwarf Louie Roth on the way to the offices of Dr. Ling Chi Ho, dentist and erstwhile criminal mastermind, he was reminded of an earlier occasion he had visited this fascinating city.

It was some years ago now—on his honeymoon. I was a different man then, thought Blue: tall, lean, lanky, dapper, handsome in his own peculiar way with a strong direct gaze, gentle mouth, firm sensitive jaw. Doctor Desmond Blue, psychoanalyst (Dezi to my friends.) Not yet celebrated in any sense but a dedicated practitioner of an honest trade.

And madly in love too. With the lovely young woman he’d only recently wed.

There are numerous entertaining side excursions into matters of sex, culture, history, science and philosophy—as well as quirky backstories for all the protagonists—but they do not totalize to the overarching weltanschauung of, say, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Ultimately, the book achieves a kind of manic droll world-weary humor like a fusion of Philip Jose Farmer and Neal Barrett. Not a negligible achievement, and one that should have seen the light of day much earlier, when the book could have entered a revered place in the canon.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Emmi Itäranta

The City of Woven Streets, Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager UK 978-0007536061 8.99, 332pp, tp) June 2016. As Weaver (Harper Voy­ager 978-0-06-232617-1, $14.99, 310pp, tp) November 2016.

The Weaver, published earlier this year in England under the far more evocative title The City of Woven Streets, is the second novel from the Finnish writer Emmi Itäranta, whose post-apocalyptic SF novel The Memory of Water deservedly gained attention a couple of years ago, largely because of her evocative, lyrical prose (she apparently writes simultaneously in Finnish and English). That prose serves her well in The Weaver, which has a more clearly fantasy affect, even though many elements can be read as biopunk SF – the island city which is the set­ting uses globes of luminescent algae for light, medicinal organisms called medusae, tattoos as emblems of both repression and resistance, and technologies such as microscopes and cable-borne ‘‘air gondolas.’’ The economy seems almost medi­eval, with a governing council accountable to no one and what amounts to craft guilds with names like the House of Webs, the House of Words, and the House of Fire. Eliana, the narrator, is a loyal member of the House of Webs – hence the weaver of the title – but she also harbors a couple of important secrets, such as the fact that she can read and dream, both of which are forbidden. Dreamers, in fact, are rounded up, branded, and either exiled or sent to a dismal prison called the House of the Tainted.

The Gothic undertone of this dystopia is made clear when Eliana visits the ‘‘Museum of Pure Sleep’’, presumably established to celebrate the abolition of the ‘‘dream plague,’’ and views a painting of a young woman ‘‘lying on a bed with her eyes closed, a hand fallen toward the floor over the edge of the bed,’’ and a ‘‘dark shadow’’ sitting on her chest. This is a pretty fair descrip­tion of Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare, and indeed ‘‘night-maeres,’’ as they are called here, are portrayed in very similar terms; anyone visited by these goblin-like forms is a candidate for the House of the Tainted. But there are real-life nightmares as well, and one of them is the hook that opens the story: a young woman, whose name we eventually learn is Valeria, washes ashore bat­tered and bloody, her tongue cut out – and Eliana’s name tattooed on the palm of her hand.

Eliana becomes her protector and eventual lover, and her efforts to track down Valeria’s story lead her first to the girl’s aunt, and then into a deepening web that increasingly suggests all is not as it seems, and that the city’s entire culture – and her own House of Webs – may be built on long history of corruption and deception. Along the way, she confronts an inventive, if sometimes familiar, array of antagonists and helpers, from a pair of officiously brutal cops to a wonderful sort of spider-goddess who seems like a cross between Charlotte and Shelob. While the opening chapters reveal this world to us in a manner so elliptical to at times seem meandering, the plot gains considerably in focus and pacing as Eliana finds herself separated from Valeria and, of course, in great danger. The cataclysmic conclusion, while in keeping with the novel’s nods toward Gothic excess, isn’t quite earned by the narrative that precedes it, but much is redeemed by Eliana’s haunting, wistful, and yet tough-minded narra­tive voice.

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 Henry Kuttner

The Watcher at the Door: The Early Kuttner: Volume Two, by Henry Kuttner (Haffner Press 978-1893887824, $45.00, 712pp, hardcover) October 2016

This exciting ongoing project, helmed by the indefatigable, knowledgeable and inestimable Stephen Haffner, will culminate someday with a third volume, Designs for Dreaming. But right now, Volume Two of the monument a-building delivers an even greater and more enjoyable reading experience than its predecessor. Nearly seven hundred pages of fiction by Kuttner from the short span of 1937 to 1940 finds the Golden Age Master even more deft and wide-ranging than in that first volume, Terror in the House, where apprentice Kuttner concentrated on Grand Guignol pieces and fake-supernatural spook tales. The sure hand and clever wit that would be fully on display under John Campbell’s Golden Age guidance appear in stronger and more lasting flashes here.

Before having a gander at selected items from this treasure chest of some thirty tales, let me reaffirm the solid bookman craftsmanship behind this deluxe hardcover, and the high quality of the ancillary material, this time from Robert A. Madle and Dr. Garyn G. Roberts. From the former, we get on-the-spot nostalgia and reminiscenses, and from the latter, perceptive insights into individual tales. Kudos to all contributors!

If we look at the first few tales in sequence, we can see some traits and patterns that continue to play out in the subsequent stories.

“We are the Dead” is a tale that relies on atmosphere. Two men in a cemetery encounter an eerie third fellow, who proves to be the ghost of the Unknown Soldier. The classicism of this ghost tale is married to a contemporary apprehensive sensibility towards the war-torn world of 1937, which has yet to plunge fully into the abyss. Also of note is the economy of scale—only six pages long—and the restraint. Not that Kuttner has utterly foresworn melodrama and pulp brio. But he’s getting there.

“The Case of Herbert Thorp” introduces another Kuttner hallmark: humor, either black or silly. In this case, a little of both, as a magazine editor gets his ghastly comeuppance. Next up, “The Transgressor” is in solid SF territory as we watch a neat time-travel paradox get enacted. We see hints of Kuttner’s mature self that will manifest in the brilliant “Time Locker.” Again, all these pieces have been told with not a wasted word.

When we come to “Hydra,” we recall that Kuttner was a Lovecraftian at the very start of his career, and in this solid expedition into astral travel with gruesome consequences, he shows that the Lovecraftian tropes and themes are not mere tics with him, but sympathetic material which he can rework to his own parameters.

“Murder for Fun” is one of several purely mimetic crime tales in this volume, and is typical of those selections, resembling the “Old Dark House” movies so popular at the time.

And so, purely by coincidence or chance, these first five stories lay down the template for the remainder of the contents. Atmospherically scary; humorously fantastical; solidly speculative; Lovecraftian; naturalistically suspenseful. Kuttner is busy honing his literary chops along these five axes, until that day when his alliance with wife Catherine Moore kicked his work into overdrive.

So what are the best remaining instances of each of the five categories?

The title story is truly creepy, as we watch the mental disintegration of the protagonist under the influence of bad dreams in a witch house. And some African voodoo evokes chills in “The Curse of the Crocodile.”

Kuttner’s Thorne Smith pastiches—“The Misguided Halo” and “All Is Illusion”—are rollicking examples of the Unknown magazine brand of screwball fantasy. “Improbability,” about a locus of non-causality, is less humorous but equally wild.

For bold and genuinely speculative SF, it’s hard to beat “’Telepathy Is News!’” which offers a believable Orwellian dystopia and some van Vogtian superman antics. “No Man’s World” reads like Will McIntosh’s Defenders in its account of Earth as a battleground for two warring species of aliens. And “World Without Air” is an effective Hal-Clement-style excursion.

Other Lovecraftian gems are “The Devil’s Brood,” utilizing HPL’s great trope of inbred familial deformities, and “Towers of Death,” the tale of soul displacement by a greedy old dying man.

Finally, the crime stories are all of the same magnitude, fun but not really inventive. I did like the absolutely daft notion behind “Corpse Castle.” A Howard-Hughes type figure wants to endow those who aided him in his hard-fought youth with some money, and he figures a cool way to do it is to drug them all, abduct them, and have them awaken in his private castle, which soon becomes a den of death!

The one tale I found semi-unsatisfactory was “When New York Vanished.” Overlong for the material, at well beyond a hundred pages, it reads like the early gosh-wow stuff of Jack Williamson, but more tedious. Kuttner must have been eager for a paycheck, to bloat this tale of inter-dimensional shenanigans up to this size.

But such a rare failure only highlights the excellence of the other stories, each of which shows Kuttner intent on delivering reading pleasure while improving his skills and expanding his range. There is also, in all his work, the sense of an author enjoying what he does—a quality which is impossible to fake, and without which a story becomes turgid and by-the-numbers. That was never true of Kuttner or his tales. I expect that Volume Three will find the young genius even more firmly in command of his material and talents.

One superficial final observation: Kuttner loved the designation “Baldy” for a character, using it over and over. Admittedly, hair loss is always an easily recognizable and funny character tag. It’s interesting then that he was able ultimately to transcend or uplift the gimmick into his tales of the “Baldies,” collected in Mutant.

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 Ray Cluley

Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow, Ray Clu­ley (Spectral 978-0957392793, $20.00, 82pp) May 2015. (Snowbooks 9781911390879, £4.99, 84pp, pb) September 2016.

Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters was one of the standouts of 2015, a collection of well-written stories about a variety of monsters in a variety of landscapes. His follow-up publication, the standalone novella, Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow, is another success. Its protagonist, Gjerta Jørgensen, is a member of Slædpatruljen Sirius, a Danish military dogsled unit responsible for patrolling Greenland’s inhos­pitable northeastern coast. As she and her partner proceed north in the days before Christmas, they are plagued by not only worsening weather, but the loss of their radio, the death of one of their dogs, and Gjerta’s growing sense that there is something pursuing them. What their pursuer might be is hinted at through a second narrative thread set during Gjerta’s childhood, when she is living with her father in rural Denmark. Her father takes her into the winter forest in order to educate her in it, but in so doing, attracts the attention of something Gjerta names the darkteeth, an entity or congeries of entities she associates with the death of her mother. After haunting the edges of her childhood, the darkteeth, it seems, have crossed the ocean to Greenland with her, and now seek a final, definitive confrontation.

The polar regions have been a setting for some of the most accomplished horror narratives, from Lovecraft’s landmark At the Mountains of Madness to Michelle Paver’s stunning Dark Matter. Cluley’s evocation of the Greenland coast’s icy austerity grounds his novella in a place that is already inimical to human existence, before the incursion of the supernatural. By providing glimpses of Gjerta’s upbringing and relation­ship with her father, he gives what would still be a compelling chase story an added layer of meaning, which results in an ending that is at once vivid and mysterious. With this novella, Ray Cluley further cements his standing as one of the most interesting of the newer generation of horror writers.

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

Faren Miller reviews Erika Johansen

The Fate of the Tearling, Erika Johansen (Harper 978-0-06-229042-7, $25.99, 480pp, hc) November 2016.

When Erika Johansen began a trilogy with debut novel The Queen of the Tearling, I saw elements of science fiction in a work that more strongly invokes epic fantasy (and is touted as such in the blurbs). Set in a world linked somehow to Earth’s dysto­pian future, all three books interweave plots and genres along two timelines with several centuries between them – eras and situations that invoke SF for the past, dark fantasy for the present. Main characters in that later time (where most of the action takes place) include Kelsea, the teenager raised to unexpected heights in Queen; the Crim­son Queen of Mort, head of the sinister autocracy that attacks in middle book The Invasion of the Tearling; and the Orphan, a sorcerer whose hu­man origin is never hidden but which becomes crucial to finale The Fate of the Tearling. Im­portant as they are, Johansen drops them into a montage of viewpoints – some for people who’d be ‘‘groundlings’’ in standard epic fantasy.

Throughout the trilogy, its timelines, characters and themes can create a shifting, turbulent mix in the space of a single chapter, but this last vol­ume defies genre convention most openly of all. Some of this is structural. In its three sections, the expected rescue mission for an imprisoned Queen Kelsea doesn’t set out until book two, and the scenarios that will finally trigger a startling climax proceed by labyrinthine paths before com­ing together near the end of book three.

When early chapters set the stage with post-war briefing sessions for the current regent of Tear­land and the Crimson Queen, a sense of strange­ness prevails. Tear generals report that the Mort army’s heading home: ‘‘But why? No one knew… [Soldiers] weren’t even looting on their way ….’’ And though Kelsea’s now a prisoner of the Mort, her magical sapphires turned over to their Queen, it seems nothing like victory when that monarch hears of angry mobs, deserting militias, plans for more widespread political rebellion, and the Orphan’s monstrous army – something like a zombie horde – ravaging distant villages, with her capital Mortmesne as the next stop on their quest for world domination.

While many of the threats seem fantastical, in clashing realms with dark forces on the move, this final volume treats much of its present more like the Nightly News, ranging from bleak war scenes to more intimate chronicles of crime and human folly – prevalent in a world whose monsters once were human. In one of those latter plotlines, former victims of a child-molesting husband and father take refuge in the regent’s court (where their toddler proves to be to be surpris­ingly useful); another follows a Tearling man whose wife was sent to slavery in Mortmesne as he finally tracks her to a Mort whorehouse (and doesn’t get the response that he expected).

For the past, the focus narrows to one person’s experience in the small town founded by William Tear, inhabited by settlers with a pre-industrial lifestyle and grand ambitions for human social improvement. Here the new book introduces Katie: a teenager as spirited and questioning as Kelsea, yet also a close friend to the boy who becomes the ageless Orphan. Scenes from that friendship – and its later rift – explore opposing ideals and emotions, some that drive Tearling idealism, others that start undermining it while hopes are still high.

The Fate of the Tearling takes ‘‘Failed Uto­pia’’ as its overriding theme, in chapter-heading quotes and (more subtly) the name of Tear’s out­post: New London, which plays on the setting of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a futuristic London. Tackling both utopia and epic fantasy in a trilogy with divided timelines, multiple perspec­tives, and a wild genre mix, Johansen may not reach Huxley’s satiric heights. Nonetheless, the work is genuinely subversive: social commentary in the guise of supernatural adventure.

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 Three Lost World Novels

The Yellow God, by H. Rider Haggard (Armchair Fiction 978-1536920727, $12.95, 232pp, trade paperback) August 2016

Under the Andes, by Rex Stout (Armchair Fiction 978-1536920802, $12.95, 248pp, trade paperback) August 2016

The Land of the Changing Sun, by Will N. Harben (Armchair Fiction 978-1537196312, $12.95, 184pp, trade paperback) August 2016

Does any genre of fiction ever actually become extinct? And if a genre does go extinct, does that mean that its subject matter, its core material and reason for existing, has no relevance or holds no interest any longer for a contemporary audience?

Most long-time readers can adduce a few genres that, if not extinct, have decidedly gone out of fashion. Westerns once seemed on the verge of disappearing entirely, but while they are certainly not produced in the vast numbers of yore, they do persist at some level. What about “nurse novels?” Fiction about the medical profession continues, and such novels might include nurses. But novels exclusively featuring young women seeking a certain rare independent path through the working world, with elements of romance and danger, do not leap off the shelves these days.

Does the YA field still include books about kids who love horses? As a tween, I used to find such books fascinating. (They seemed to come mostly from Whitman press.) I see that Amazon features an “Equestrian” category under its YA headings, so I guess the love persists in a new generation. Jacobean revenge plays are no longer being written, but you could probably make the case that some crime or thriller novels perform essentially the same function.

But the sub-genre of fantastika known as the “Lost World” or “Lost Race” novel seems pretty well kaput. As a function of humanity’s ignorance about certain parts of our planet, these books lost all basis in realism as the globe became fully mapped. The possibility of antediluvian beasts persisting in such venues, as in the classic by Conan Doyle, The Lost World, grew even more impossible as science progressed.

I suppose one could write a classic Lost World novel nowadays by either of two expedients. You could do one that was set in the historical past, so that the events and venue become merely an unrecorded bit of interstitial history. Or you could instantiate a contemporary Lost World by hiding it down some alternate dimension or behind some veil. This is what Marvel Comics does with its maintenance of the Savage Land. But setting a Lost World inside some spacetime flaw rather classes it as a portal fantasy—Narnia as Lost World. The closest one might come to the real spirit and still remain plausible is in such a novel as China Miéville’s The City & the City.

The genre still remains readable, however, if we merely suspend our disbelief a little harder than with other genres. And thanks to Greg Luce at Armchair Fiction, we can enjoy new editions of some lesser-known classics from their “Lost World-Lost Race” series.

Installment number eight in that roll call comes from one of the masters of the species, H. Rider Haggard. It’s cast along the same lines as his monumental She, but it’s thinner and less archetypically resonant, dealing more with the quotidian than the eternal. Also, given its 1908 publication date, when Haggard was fifty-one (though still with some seventeen years to live and another two dozen novels in him) and when the era of High Victorianism was coming to a close, the book could never fully reach the giddy heights of the famous one.

In London, two “respectable” businessmen scam artists, Aylward and Champers-Haswell, are about to launch a public offering for bonds to fund a wild scheme to flood the Sahara and make it into a paradise. They have enlisted the good name and services of the innocent young engineer, Major Alan Vernon. But Alan tumbles to their schemes and resigns, preferring to remain poor, with reputation unsullied. Naturally, this puts him at a disadvantage in his plans to marry his lady love, Barbara, niece of Champers-Haswell.

So Alan, heeding the old tales of his man-servant Jeekie, an expatriated native of the mysterious Asiki-land in Western Africa, resolves to return a family heirloom, the frightening mask of the goddess known as Little Bonsa, to the tribe and claim a rich reward of gold. Before you can say “Up the Qua River without a paddle,” Jeekie and Alan are deep into uncharted territory. After many ordeals, they enter into Asiki-land and discover that the religion of Little Bonsa is embodied in a beautiful priestess, the Asika, who channels the thousands of years of memories of her lineage. She takes a different husband every year—with the used-up one handily committing suicide—and she has determined that Alan is next in line. The remainder of the book charts the unnatural romance between the two, followed by the thrilling escape of Alan and Jeekie, their revenge upon Aylward, and the final reunion with Barbara.

The book’s first seven chapters, a third of the wordage, are set in the UK, and relatively sparse in the supernatural. This mercenary milieu casts its tone over Alan’s motives and the rest of the book, which is, in the end, merely a quest to get rich on Alan’s part. The spiritual and carnal back and forth with the Asika is never torrid, and she too seems a very quotidian goddess. As always in Haggard, it’s the black man, Jeekie, who is probably the smartest and most practical character, and he saves the day numerous times. While eminently readable and never boring, The Yellow God lacks that hypnotic and mystic resonance of Haggard’s best work.

Surely the reputation of Rex Stout will rest forever on his Nero Wolfe mysteries, and not Under the Andes, which constitutes only his second novel, written when he was twenty-eight. And yet the latter is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a wild-eyed roller coaster of an adventure, vividly and deftly narrated by its hero. While not packed with any manner of anthropological complexity, it’s a kind of A. Merritt extravaganza. And unlike the Haggard novel, with Stout being of a different generation, it’s full of proto-Jazz Age insouciance and brio.

Our teller of the tale is one Paul Lamar. He and his younger brother Harry are idle society lads, able to drop ninety thousand dollars while gambling without too much concern. Paul is the more responsible chap, and worries that Harry is too wild.

Into their New York social set comes one Desiree Le Mire, the most beautiful woman in the world, who has left behind a string of broken hearts and suicides in Europe. The Lamars vie for her favors, Paul only half seriously. She and Harry run away out West. Paul, worried, tracks them down. The trio decides to be all just good friends, not lovers. They embark on a pleasure cruise. In South America they decide to go mountaineering. Their native guide brings them to the “Devil’s Cave,” where, legend has it, a troop of ancient Incas once took refuge from the Spaniards. Madcap Desiree impulsively dashes inside, and immediately falls into a chasm. The lads follow in the helpless descent, but are separated from the woman.

Here ensues an odyssey through blind darkness. (And it’s a testament to Stout’s skill that he conveys the action interestingly without visual references.) The brothers eventually stumble into an enormous lighted cavern. There they see a naked Desiree dancing before a tribe of bestial devolved Inca descendants, including their froglike King.

From here it’s one mad dangerous event after another, into and out of captivity, battling underworld monsters, both human and otherwise. Finally, with escape in sight, tragedy strikes. We end with Paul recounting the adventures from the safety of his familiar mansion.

Stout’s frankness in sexual matters, and his breezy yet affecting portrayal of both heroism and selfishness, as well as his ability to conjure up creepy situations, make this book a sterling example of pulp bravado.

Haggard and Stout are familiar names, but not so with Will N. Harben, author of The Land of the Changing Sun, apparently his only SF novel. His foray into the Lost World genre is a tad clunky, with a kind of “As you can plainly see, visitors…” vibe about it. But it is earnest and quick-moving and just gonzo enough to remain enjoyable.

Two adventurers, Johnston the American and Thorndyke the Englishman, are lost in their damaged hot-air balloon, drifting out over the Atlantic. They see a distant uncharted island, their only hope, and engineer their descent. On the island they resign themselves to being castaways. But the island features a lake, and from the depths of this lake arises a submarine! They are taken aboard by Captain Tradmos, and sink to the bottom of the lake. The craft enters a tunnel, and comes up in an underground grotto. From there, an elevator brings them further under the earth. They emerge into a paradise!

An immense cavern, lighted by an artificial sun on tracks, is populated with perfect specimens of humanity, bred by the magical atmosphere: the kingdom of Alpha, ruled by a benevolent king, along with his gorgeous daughter, the rather unfortunately named Princess Bernardino. It’s a utopia, founded some time back by a commune from the world we know. But the realm is not for outsiders such as Johnston and Thorndyke. Thorndyke is allowed to remain as a circumscribed guest at court, but the more reprehensible Johnston is exiled to the Barrens, the “dead lands beyond the sun.”

The narrative splits in two now. We follow Johnston’s exploits as he teams up with a native, Branasko, as they seek to escape their Coventry. Meanwhile, Thorndyke and Princess Bernardino fall in love.

However, all mundane concerns are put into perspective by an earthquake that opens up a rift all the way up to the Atlantic. Salt water begins to pour in. A daring venture temporarily seals the rift, giving the king enough time to come to his senses and call for the gradual immigration of all his citizens to the surface world.

Harben’s main fascination for us is with the eugenic attitude of the “Alphians.” Perfect physical specimens, they nevertheless reveal in their rigid ideology and elitism that a fine appearance can disguise a blackness of heart. It’s an eternally good moral.

These three Lost World novels and their ilk continue to speak to a modern audience about an era akin to the medieval conceptions of Prester John, when marvels were believed to exist around every bend of the road. Writers such as Philip Jose Farmer derived much inspiration from such tales, and surely, mutatis mutandis, we can too.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Alastair Reynolds

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz 978-0-575-09053-8, £18.99, 432pp, hc) September 2016; (Orbit 978-0-316-55556-2, $14.99, 560pp, pb) February 2017.

There’s a reason why space opera is called space opera, and it isn’t a good one. By now most SF readers are familiar with Wilson Tucker’s coinage of the term in 1941, modeled on ‘‘horse opera’’ for Westerns (which some 1930s pulp SF was thought to resemble), which in turn was modeled on ‘‘soap opera’’ from domestic radio melodramas. Grand opera seemed a pretty good shorthand for the over-the-top emotional sturm und drang of those serials, but it made less sense applied to Westerns, and still less when applied to pulp SF, where the emotions often got no further than gimlet-eyed heroic determination and pop-eyed mad-scientist megalomania. The opera part didn’t get lost – it was simply never there in the first place.

Alastair Reynolds, one of the leading lights of the New Space Opera movement, did much to restore emotional resonance to the genre, to play the old songs once more but with feeling (as well as with considerable scientific and economic sophistication), and with Revenger he shamelessly returns to the operatic intensity, and many of the character types, of his Romantic forbears. The betrayal-and-revenge plot owes more to Dumas, Hugo, and Stevenson than to earlier SF (there are some echoes of Bester, but then he owed a lot to Dumas), and the characters include space pirates, a kidnapped sister, a weak but scheming father, a Javert-like pursuer, a loyal old robot servant, a scary and sadistic supervillain, an evil doctor, a kindly space captain, and a couple of noble self-sacrifices. Add to this some alien technology (including what amounts to an invisibility cloak), archeological treasures protected by Indiana Jones-style booby traps, squabbling spaceship crews, and an intriguing but understated backstory involving millions of years of Solar System history, and you’d seem to have a recipe for goulash.

And so what? Revenger is tremendous fun, with perhaps the most linear, straightforward, and kinetic plot of all Reynolds’s novels. Much of its appeal depends on the narrative voice of the teenage Arafura Ness, whose coming of age – in the form of her transformation from a bookloving student into a mercilessly efficient fighter – keeps the novel firmly anchored in its characters. Arafura’s more adventurous older sister Adrana persuades her to run away from a party to the colorful, Bladerunner-like bazaar Neural Alley, where a broker named Madame Granity discovers they each have a talent for ‘‘reading the bones,’’ or psychically connecting to old alien skulls that are used by spaceship crews as interplanetary dowsing rods to discover the secrets of ‘‘baubles,’’ pockets of ancient technology that are hazardous to explore, but that may yield artifacts or ‘‘Ghosty stuff’’ that will make a crew’s fortune and reputation. These high-tech treasure chests are the most contrived and game-like elements of Reynolds’s story – they open up only for short intervals, and sometimes contain deadly traps – but they also serve to reveal that this far-future ‘‘Congregation’’ of thousands of worlds and habitats is essentially a scavenger economy, dependent on the remnants of advanced technologies dating back millions of years. We get tantalizing hints of how the Congregation was organized some ten million years earlier from the ‘‘rubble and junk’’ that preceded it, of a cataclysm called the Sundering, of various ‘‘Occupations’’ that have helped reduce civilization to its present version of a hunter-gatherer economy – and most intriguingly, the suggestion that this vast conglomeration of worlds, nearly all reachable by the solar sailing ships, is a single system, with the ‘‘Old Sun’’ at its center and the great ‘‘Empty’’ beyond. We’ve noted earlier that a good deal of recent hard SF has confined itself to the solar system, but Reynolds seems to argue that this is hardly a confinement, that the solar system is huge, and that, given a few million years of history, it can offer as great a plenitude of worlds for adventure as the old cosmic galaxy-busters.

Fascinating as this universe may be, Reynolds presents it to us mostly through allusion and indirection, with little of the detailed expository world-building of his earlier novels. There are precious few infodumps, for the simple reason that he doesn’t give himself time for them: the tale moves along at a breakneck pace from the moment, on their first mission, that Arafura (who takes to calling herself the more suggestive Fura) is separated from her sister during a deadly raid by the legendary and extremely nasty pirate queen Bosa Sennen, one of the more delicious villains in recent SF. Fura is determined to exact vengeance and rescue Adrana, and the narrative traces who and what she must become in order to do this, overcoming the manipulations of her father, his henchman, and the aforementioned evil doctor, with only her trusted-but-much-battered family robot as an ally. All this is carried forward with some unlikely but what-the-hell plot developments and with characters and dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in Treasure Island. Private conversations are ‘‘chinwags,’’ crusty old toughs refer to Fura as ‘‘girlie,’’ an older woman who becomes a sort of mentor warns Fura to ‘‘Don’t believe half the stories, and of the half that’s left, don’t believe half of them, neither.’’ Fura herself, who began as a rather bookish teenager who only ‘‘wanted to be back in my own room, next to the parlour with all our books and maps and games,’’ eventually starts saying things like ‘‘Luck’s a rum old thing,’’ as though prepping for a chinwag with Long John Silver himself. By then, though, we’re pretty much ready to set sail with her and her motley crew again, should Reynolds decide that there’s more to the Congregation, and to the Ness sisters, than we’ve seen so far.

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Starshipboard Romance: A Review of Passengers

by Gary Westfahl

There are several reasons to admire Passengers: it addresses a topic that is usually avoided in science fiction films – how humanity might colonize the galaxy without the magic of faster-than-light travel; its starship is filled with imaginative visual touches; and its story is genuinely unpredictable, consistently holding one’s interest despite a small cast and limited sets. And yet, there is also something strangely incongruous about the film, as its uneasy blend of disparate elements sometimes makes it seem like a film at war with itself.

As one issue to discuss, consider the two types of space films that I identified in my book The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012). First, there are relatively small numbers of spacesuit films, which acknowledge and depict the harsh, potentially lethal environments of outer space and typical planets and therefore have their protagonists regularly don spacesuits. Second is the broader category of space films, which usually posit, implausibly, that space travel will solely be a matter of voyaging within safe, comfortable vehicles to hospitable Earth-like worlds, never requiring spacesuits, as in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Quite unusually, Passengers solidly fits into both categories.

On one hand, the two starship passengers prematurely awakened from hibernation – Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) – do sometimes put on spacesuits and venture into space; the film addresses one genuine danger of space travel, a breach in the hull that would precipitously suck all the air out of a chamber; much of the starship Avalon resembles a standard spaceship, with grey metallic walls and rooms filled with machinery; and two of the film’s incidents are traditional in spacesuit films, a crewman going outside of one’s spacecraft to effect repairs, and an astronaut perilously drifting farther and farther into the depths of space, demanding a valiant rescue attempt. Strikingly, the first two women to take space walks in films – Ana Luisa Peluffo in the Mexican film Conquistador de la Luna (1960) and June Lockhart in the first episode of Lost in Space, “The Reluctant Stowaway” (1965) – both put on their spacesuits to rescue male companions stranded in space; Lawrence at one point does the same. Certain stereotypes – men enter space seeking adventure, women enter space seeking true love – may never die; and though Lawrence announces other reasons for her space voyage, the parting words of a friend on Earth are, “I hope you find someone to fill your heart, and I hope you let him in.”

Two interestingly contrasting scenes explore the emotional impact of space: while he is still the only passenger awake, Preston goes drifting through space by himself, leading him to shed a tear and contemplate suicide; space can be dauntingly cold and forbidden. But later, when he takes Lane with him, they seem to celebrate the wonders and freedom of space as they float together, recalling the way that the robots Wall-E and Eve soar through space in Wall-E (2008 – review here). Clearly thrilled, Lane says “Thank you” to Preston for providing her with that experience, and she immediately falls in love with him, prompting a comic scene wherein their bulky spacesuits hinder their efforts to enjoy a first kiss.

On the other hand, when they aren’t taking walks in space, Preston and Lane are living within a fantastically, and unnecessarily, spacious vehicle, made comfortable by some unexplained form of artificial gravity; and amidst the generally spartan quarters there are islands of luxury, like the old-fashioned bar staffed by the humanoid robot Arthur (Michael Sheen), a swimming pool, and fancy French, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants – oddly staffed by non-humanoid robots. The overall look of the Avalon may have been influenced by the similarly huge starship of Czech film Ikarie XB-1 (1963), though it had no passengers in hibernation. The ship also contains versions of Star Trek’s Holodeck, as Preston plays games involving full-sized holograms of dancers and basketball hoops, and the constantly attentive robots, and robotic voices, recall another aspect of Wall-E – the gigantic spaceship that pampered and overprotected Earth’s displaced citizens. All of this suggests that traveling through space will be like going on a pleasant cruise, as in typical space films, although the protagonists here occasionally take a bracing plunge into the more austere world of the spacesuit film.

The science behind the story is also an odd mixture of logic and illogic. The Avalon is propelled by a “fusion drive” – a technology for interstellar flight that has been seriously proposed – and over time, such an engine might actually get a starship to move at half the speed of light, as crew member Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne) reports. And placing passengers in hibernation for journeys to other stars that take decades, if not centuries, also seems a reasonable and eventually realizable system. However, unlike other recent spacesuit films like Gravity (2013 – review here) and The Martian (2015 – review here) , Passengers fails to credit anyone as a “science advisor,” and sometimes it shows. For one thing, I don’t think someone could survive for a second, let alone several minutes, in close proximity to a malfunctioning fusion reactor. Also, in other science fiction portrayals of interstellar travel at sublight speeds, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), the starship has the capacity to both remove people from hibernation and place them back in hibernation, and some members of a rotating crew are always awake, seemingly essential measures to deal with unexpected problems. On the Avalon, everybody is in hibernation, and if someone awakens accidentally, there is no way to return them to hibernation. And if a starship like this one was indeed placed entirely on “autopilot,” there would surely be an overarching intelligence in charge, like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), again as an obvious safety measure; here, all of the starship’s robotic intelligences appear to operate independently, so that one of them tells Preston that the ship is about to reach the planet Homestead II while another reports, more accurately, that it will not do so for another ninety years.

One minor problem probably bothered me more than it should have. We told that the ship is on a 120-year journey, traveling at about half the speed of light. While it would require some time to accelerate to that speed, and to decelerate as it approaches its destination, one could roughly guess that it is traveling about sixty light years – and, as it happens, there are several stars with known planets at about that distance. Preston and Lane have awakened after 30 years, so they must be about fifteen light years away from Earth. Yet in one of the film’s most spectacular scenes, they get a close-up view of the red giant star Arcturus as the Avalon swings around it, presumably to get a boost from its gravity. But Arcturus is 36.7 light years from Earth, so the starship could never reach it in 30 years, even traveling at the speed of light. It would have required about five minutes of online research to find the name of a star that Preston and Lane might have actually observed, but clearly, no one thought that this was important. (True, one might endeavor to explain this away by arguing that, on a ship traveling at great speed, time would slow down, so that a journey that would seem to last thirty years to observers on Earth might feel like only fifteen years to passengers on the ship; but there is no indication that anyone involved with this film was even aware of this issue.)

Beyond its occasional indifference to science, Passengers also seems curiously unmoved by the motive behind its science – the goal of colonizing new planets throughout the galaxy. Journalist Lane properly calls this “the biggest story there is,” explaining her desire to report it, and one might imagine that it would lead to a truly epic film, depicting thousands of people banding together to forever leave their homes in order to conquer a virgin planet, and inspiring audiences to support space travel as a way to someday provide humanity with wondrous new homes. Yet this film instead focuses on two individuals who are forced to abandon their aspirations, destined to become forgotten footnotes to a grand historical saga. Lane even suggests that people are fundamentally incapable of achieving great things: “we are not captains of our fate …. we’re passengers – we go where fate takes us.” Presumably, space travel only occurs because fate sometimes pushes people into space and sometimes doesn’t.

The film further belittles space travel by indicating, reflecting recent trends, that interstellar colonization will be undertaken not by governments but by private corporations, solely focused on making profits. From Lane’s perspective, as Preston puts it, the Avalon is transporting “5000 suckers” foolishly lured to another planet merely to make other people rich. The evils of corporate greed are underlined by the exorbitant price of Preston’s distress message to Earth, and by the fact that Lane cannot research how to place herself in hibernation because “Hibernation technology is proprietary.” Of course, attacking avaricious companies as baleful engines of space exploration is nothing new in science fiction films, having been a recurring theme of Alien (1979) and its sequels.

To summarize the argument so far, one could say that Passengers, despite some good features, lacks both the scientific rigor, and forward-looking vision, that is usually associated with superior science fiction. But director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Jons Spaihts might respond that this is all beside the point; their film is primarily a character study, focused on how a relationship might develop between unlikely individuals in uniquely stressful circumstances. Yet the film is also problematic if examined within that context.

In some respects, this film’s story recalls James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) – as suggested when Lane announces that “we’re stranded on a sinking ship.” In both films, a lower-class man and an upper-class woman, on an apparently doomed voyage, improbably meet and fall in love, and the man is later prepared to sacrifice his own life to save his beloved. To achieve this dynamic, the film must adjust its terminology: Preston is initially identified as a “mechanical engineer” – you know, someone who can design and build factories – but he is later described as a “mechanic” – you know, someone who can fix broken radios and toasters. In fact, we are told he wants to immigrate to another world because he feels useless on Earth, where broken items are replaced; on a colony planet, a person who can repair items will be appreciated. Preston also comes from Denver, Colorado, close to the wilderness, while Lane lives in sophisticated New York City, writing as she gazes at the Chrysler Building. As another sign that he is déclassé, Preston is also a jerk, as he wakes Lane from hibernation – dooming her to die on the ship before reaching her destination – solely to relieve his own loneliness.

In contrast, Lane is a wealthy “Gold Star” passenger, eligible to get much better breakfasts than Preston’s humble fare, and while her famous father may have provided a substantial inheritance, she makes her living with her intellect, not her hands, as either a “writer” or a “journalist” (also somewhat different professions). However, although there have been many memorable journalists in films, the screen generally does a poor job of depicting writers, and Lane exhibits most of the typical flaws. For the record, actual writers talk like everybody else, spend most of their time alone, writing, expect and receive little praise, and feel constantly insecure about the quality of their writing. Lane periodically responds to situations by dispensing lame platitudes; though we are once told she has done some writing, she usually seems to be doing something else; her writing is said to be so wonderful as to make Preston fall in love with her, though I was not particularly impressed by the visible samples; and Lane seems entirely too pleased by her own talents, once announcing that she has just done “her best writing” to date. In sum, if Lane actually epitomized everything it means to be a writer, I’d rather be a mechanic.

When two key characters seem fundamentally unlikable, the problem can sometimes be overcome by effective acting, and I would say that Pratt and Lawrence almost succeed in doing so. But Pratt ultimately overuses his characteristic, “I’m really a sensitive guy” expression, making one long for additional scenes of Lawrence smacking him in the face. And while Lawrence excels at being sad, angry, and irritable, she is rarely persuasive when asked to be happy; she connects with audiences, I think, because they feel sorry for her, not because they like her.

Another problem with these characters involves their actions in the film’s final scenes, which I will discuss as vaguely as possible. When protagonists do unforgiveable things, they should not be forgiven, and they should not be rewarded with happy endings; Macbeth cannot end with King Macbeth apologizing for killing all those people and resolving to henceforth be a morally scrupulous ruler, while Macduff graciously accepts his apology and promises to become his loyal subject. But in contemporary Hollywood, it requires a considerable amount of courage to provide an appropriate ending if it is not an entirely happy ending; and I will simply note that, in this respect, Tyldum and Spaihts do not prove to be particularly courageous.

As a welcome respite from Preston and Lane, the film might have devoted more screen time to Mancuso, arguably its most sympathetic character; but Fishburne is woefully underutilized, as his character functions solely as a device to jump-start the plot before he vanishes from the scene. Another veteran actor, Andy Garcia, has so little to do, despite his fifth billing, that I could not honestly list him in the accompanying credits. And Sheen’s Arthur is pleasant enough, but clearly not very smart and relentlessly superficial; perhaps Preston could excuse his behavior by stating that a year of Arthur’s company had driven him insane. The other robotic voices and holograms throughout the ship have even less intelligence, and merely reinforce the film’s obvious message about the dangers of overly relying on technology.

Like its characters, Passengers experienced a long journey to theatres, with several different directors and stars involved along the way, and there are reports that its story was still being tinkered with as late as last October; perhaps its release should have been postponed, to provide even more time for additional improvements. For it is a good film that could have been a better film with a little more attention to its science, story, and characters. But like Aurora Lane, I suppose, filmgoers sometimes must settle for what fate provides us.

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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Robert Charles Wilson

Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-7653-3263-9, $27.99, 352pp, hardcover) 6 December 2016)

Somehow, thanks to the depth of his literary talents, fecund inventiveness, and empathetic soul, Robert Charles Wilson has crafted a novel that is at once shiny and futuristic and yet rousingly old-fashioned, considering its ambiance and character development, done up in the manner of a classic pre-modern adventure. This hybrid becomes an organic whole, eminently satisfying on both science-fictional and naturalistic levels. And this understated yet truly dramatic book proves that one need not indulge in pyrotechnics nor abstruse far-edge-of-science ideas to deliver a story that fully justifies the SF label and mission.

The year of our saga is 1876, the place Illinois—specifically, the “City of Futurity.” This settlement, out in the middle of nowhere, has been built by time travelers who derive—judging by certain cultural touchstones they maintain—from roughly our own era. (But as we shall see, not necessarily the twenty-teens of our canonical history.)

The City has been constructed around a time-gate dubbed the “Mirror” for two purposes. Time-tourists from the future come back for excursions into the “exotic” world of 1876, while natives of 1876 get to experience a tiny bit of the mystifying future, through exposure to various exhibits and by staying at the City’s recreational facilities. The whole enterprise is run by one August Kemp, a hard-nosed but not evil businessman from the upstream end.

The City hires locals, and one such is our hero, Jesse Cullum. A big bruiser, far from unintelligent, Jesse acts as security for the theme park and does other odd jobs such as perimeter patrol. He lives in the part of the City reserved for his kind.

One day President Grant comes visiting, is targeted by an assassin, and is saved by Jesse’s calm heroics. This brings Jesse to the attention of Kemp, who gives him a new assignment at higher pay. He is to team up with Elizabeth DePaul—tough future-born gal, a military vet—and track down the leak that is allowing future weaponry to infiltrate the past. (Shades of Turtledove’s The Guns of the South.)

Jesse and Elizabeth start their detective work together in a kind of prickly manner, two people from, essentially, totally different and antithetical cultures and “countries.” But as they track down one lead after another, both in the City and in the 1876 milieu, they soon become friends and lovers. Yet when Elizabeth is sent back to the future, their affair seems over. It is not, however. She returns, hooks up again with Jesse—who has been chasing down “runners,” future tourists who try to go native—and together they will undertake one last assignment that will involve much blood, sacrifice, disobedience to authority, and an investigation into the true nature of their affections.

The dominant pleasures of this book—and there are many subsidiary ones—derive from Wilson’s brilliant exfoliation and habitation of Jesse’s mind and nature. The vast majority of the book is funneled through his absolutely authentic nineteenth-century perceptions—although we do get a rare divergence into Elizabeth’s point of view, and that of a couple of others. And the personality with which Wilson has endowed Jesse is both amiable and wary; whole-hearted and damaged; open yet suspicious, a mix of qualities fully justified by Jesse’s backstory, which is doled out in a natural-seeming manner as he and Elizabeth come to know each other better. And the fact that Jesse’s life history ends up driving the plot of the novel at the end is an elegant capstone.

In Elizabeth—an almost equally dominant, multiplex and resonant creation of Wilson’s—Jesse finds the perfect sounding board and foil for his own passions and hurts, ambitions and fears. The dialogue between them—Elizabeth foul-mouthed, cynical and postmodern, Jesse circumspect, idealistic and Victorian—is entertaining as heck. Yet Jesse never comes off as a hick, nor Elizabeth as an impossible warrior woman.

So the doings of these two, both romantic and professional, set wholly in the past (we never see the upstream end of the linkage) constitute a kind of classic detective-novel-cum-thriller along the lines of something Conan Doyle or John Buchan or Eugene Sue might have written.

But of course Wilson layers in the solid speculative elements as well. The peculiar nature of his time-travel device—“material translations in ontological Hilbert space”—as well as the culture clashes (and the question of which, if either, civilization is superior, which inferior?), and the humorous “Mozart in mirrorshades” riffs of the inter-era mixing (Jesse becomes a big fan of Jimi Hendrix’s music) all receive an intelligent and surprising workout that complements and supplements the main story.

By setting his tale totally in the past—unlike, say, the recent and somewhat allied Wesley Chu novel Time Salvager, which used the skipping-around-among-eras method deployed by other classics of this sub-genre, such as those by Silverberg, Willis and Baker—Wilson achieves the kind of solidity of portraiture—of time and character—these others do not necessarily evoke.

The infamous advertisement by the Science Fiction Book Club for Asimov’s The End of Eternity—“You travelled through time to taste forbidden love…but now you must murder her!”—might be rephrased here as “She travelled through time to taste forbidden murder…and now you must love her!”

All silliness aside, this fine novel offers a solid superstructure of adventure, romance, humor and tragedy whose essential foundation is the enticing weirdness of cosmic principles remade “nearer to the heart’s desire.”

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.

“I Have a Bad Feeling About This”:
A Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

by Gary Westfahl

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides precisely what it promises – a professionally-rendered, authentic Star Wars story – and enthusiastic devotees of the Star Wars universe will probably be pleased by the results; indeed, in the theatre where I watched it, its conclusion was greeted with scattered applause. However, filmgoers who are not diehard fans, and who were not entirely thrilled by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015 – review here), may be bored and appalled by this latest installment of the venerable franchise. My own feelings are aptly conveyed by some of the titles I considered for this review – “One for the Money,” “Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance,” “The Star Wars Holiday Slaughter” – suggesting the various reasons why I found myself loathing this film.

The film is a direct prequel to the original Star Wars (1977) – now identified as Episode IV: A New Hope – which explains why the word “hope” keeps coming up; and it sets out to answer the question that nobody who watched that film ever asked: just how did the rebels get a hold of those plans for the Death Star? And the answer, predictably, is that it was due to the efforts of a plucky band of rebels, battling against impossible odds. One might describe it, then, as Star Wars: Episode 3 1/2 – or perhaps, Star Wars: Episode 3.9, because who knows how many additional films might be created that are set in the period between the third and fourth films. It brings back some cherished characters from the original trilogy (and less cherished characters from the later prequels), but it would be a shame to identify them (with one exception below), since being surprised by their regrettably brief appearances constitutes one of the few pleasures that many will derive from watching the film.

To understand why viewers may have a “bad feeling” about this film, it is useful to recall a term coined by film reviewer Nick Lowe: “plot coupons.” To set, and keep, their stories in motion, authors can announce that, to achieve some desired goal, their heroes are required to visit some special place, encounter some special person, or retrieve some special object; having garnered such a “plot coupon,” they then typically discover that another task of a similar nature awaits them, and the game continues until the story has achieved a satisfactory length. It is true, as David Langford notes in John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), that the goals in certain stories have evocative resonances that elevate them above the status of expedient devices, like Dorothy’s quest to return home in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s One Ring; but this is definitely not the case with the contrived plot coupons that inspire each and every single action in this film. For example, without really offering any “spoilers,” I can report that, in the film’s final scenes, one group of heroes is on the ground seeking to obtain a plot coupon – which will prod a second group of heroes in the sky to obtain another plot coupon – which will enable a third group of heroes within an enemy stronghold to obtain a third plot coupon. It is an insult to the field of mathematics to describe such stories as “formulaic,” since actual mathematical formulas tend to be a bit more complex.

This film is disappointing not only because it is so mechanically constructed, but also because one can envision a virtually infinite series of future Star Wars films in which, as in this film, (hero A) must travel to (planet B) in order to obtain (plot coupon C), only to learn that it is now necessary to travel to (planet D) in order to obtain (plot coupon E). After all, one can easily find in this film, and other films, many other questions that nobody has asked: how did scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) get involved in building a Death Star, and what inspired him to turn against the Empire? How did Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) become blind, and what led to his friendship with Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang)? All one has to do is to invent plot coupons to get them moving, and the possibilities are sadly endless, as long as the audiences keep showing up.

One might tolerate this film’s arbitrary narrative if it involved genuinely appealing characters, but none of its newly-crafted heroes are truly memorable. The film devotes an ample amount of time to the back story of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), but she is so disappointingly similar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s Rey that she never comes to life as a character in her own right. And if you are surprised to learn that she first expresses a determination to only look out for herself, but later becomes utterly dedicated to fighting for the rebellion, you have never watched a Star Wars film. (A character observes that her “behavior is continually unexpected,” but precisely the opposite is the case.) All of the other new heroes, it seems, were each allotted no more than two minutes to establish why we should love them, and then the filmmakers, confident that we’ll now be rooting for these stalwarts, go back to moving them around like pieces on a chessboard. Three of Jyn’s companions – Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Baze Malbus, and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – are merely dull, but blind swordsman Chirrut Îmwe is actively annoying, a character inanely stolen from Japanese action films and utterly out of place in this film. Occasional lines of dialogue suggest characters with emotional depths: “There is more than one sort of prison. I sense that you carry yours wherever you go.” “You’re not the only one who lost everything.” “I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad.” But we know so little, and care so little, about these characters that these pronouncements have no impact at all, serving only to prolong the welcome respites between recurring gun battles.

Overall, while I realize that I was supposed to find them endearing, I instead began longing to watch all of these characters die on the screen, since that would greatly decrease the chance that they would someday blight another Star Wars film. It is also significant that characters from previous films, not any of this film’s pallid stars, are featured in the film’s final scenes. Still, there is one halfway likable character that might merit a revival – the robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) – though he is blatantly derivative, combining C-3PO’s witticisms with R2-D2’s technological savvy in one convenient package. (And didn’t Tudyk play a similar character in I, Robot [2004 – review here]?)

Considering this film’s cast leads me to an unexpected conclusion: one imagines that franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars are popular primarily because of their fascinating and richly developed universes – and such backgrounds in themselves might be enough to sustain a television series, novel, or video game. But feature films may require strong, involving characters as well. Thus, the Star Trek film franchise floundered when it attempted to rely on the generally boring cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), but came to life again when they brought back the more interesting characters from the original series. In the case of the Star Wars franchise, its two recent films make me suspect, more than ever, that the original trilogy succeeded in large part because of its wonderful group of characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The mixture of new and old characters in the prequels never worked quite as well; Star Wars: The Force Awakens was mostly enjoyable because of the sustained participation of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, aided and abetted by Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca and Carrie Fisher’s Leia; and this film is not enjoyable because old, familiar friends are observed only fleetingly. To keep the franchise alive in decades to come, then, producers may be well advised to stop striving to develop ineffectual new characters and instead, like Star Trek, hire new actors to portray its original cast in new adventures.

Despite its novel characters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story seems determined in many ways to emulate previous Star Wars films, right down to beginning the film with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” and having a character say, “I have a bad feeling about this” (though he is at least cut off before uttering the final two words). Menacing walkers and the Death Star return; there are yet another version of the cantina scene, more groups of fighter pilots identified by different colors, storm troopers threatening on multiple occasions, and distinctively odd aliens lurking in the background. But director Gareth Edwards has departed from the pattern of Star Wars in one noteworthy way. In the other films, the characters faced several different sorts of challenges, and one could never complain about any “gratuitous violence.” But that is precisely the element that Edwards, having already demonstrated his indifference to mass murder in Godzilla (2014 – review here), is now adding to the Star Wars franchise. Again and again and again, the peril facing Jyn and her allies is that a group of enemies is trying to kill them; again and again and again, they are obliged to respond by slaughtering all of them; and the weapons of choice, unimaginatively, look very much like ordinary machine guns. In fact, for someone who is not paying attention to the nuances of the plot, the entertainment provided by this film could be accurately summarized as “watching seven hundred people get killed.” No, I didn’t actually count all the corpses, but if I am ever forced to see this film again, I may divert myself by endeavoring to tally them up.

Reflecting its nonstop bloodshed, the film is also unlike other Star Wars films in its visual gloom; one associates earlier films with bright, daytime landscapes and well-lit interiors, but these characters seem to spend most of their time enduring pouring rain and dark, confining rooms; the final battle occurs on a sunny day, one suspects, solely because our heroes must see what they are doing. In addition, Edwards’s film is almost entirely devoid of humor. Yes, K-2S0 has a few funny lines, and Churrit offers a single joke, but otherwise the characters all maintain stone faces throughout the film – contrasting sharply with the original trilogy, enlivened by Han Solo’s constant wisecracks, C-3PO’s amusing complaints, and Princess Leia’s sarcasm; at times, Chewbacca and R2-D2 could inspire laughter with well-timed bursts of inarticulate sound. One might defend Edwards’s film on the grounds that, instead of keeping everything light, he is endeavoring to finally produce a grown-up Star Wars film; but – let’s face it – Star Wars has never been, and can never be, a grown-up world. It is like striving to produce Mickey Mouse’s Dungeon, or Elena of Armageddon. There is perhaps some irony in one character’s statement that “I’m beginning to think the Force and I have different priorities” – for it certainly seems like George Lucas and Gareth Edwards have different priorities.

I should also address the rumors that the film did some last-minute shooting in order to incorporate some sort of attack on Donald Trump. All I can say is that, if that was the filmmakers’ intent, they were much too subtle for me, for I discerned nothing in the film that might be interpreted in that manner. The theory also strikes me as unlikely, since in making Godzilla, Edwards was visibly determined to avoid saying anything that might offend somebody, and I can’t imagine that he would weaken this film’s chances for success by criticizing a president-elect who received over 62,000,000 votes. More broadly, as I indicated while reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I see no meaningful parallels between the starkly Manichean world of Star Wars and our own, more complicated real world, and imagining that such parallels exist – regarding one’s own group as entirely good, and one’s opponents as entirely evil – is both inaccurate and dangerous.

If this film has any message at all, it is the less than controversial point that fathers should love their daughters, and daughters should love their fathers. To drive the point home, Jyn is provided with both an actual father, Galen Erso, and a surrogate father, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); avenging the wrongs done to them becomes the main reason that she fights for the rebellion, and when she has completed a mission, Cassian pays her the ultimate compliment by saying, “Your father would have been proud of you.” At times, characters dispense uplifting platitudes on other subjects, all designed to create the impression that this movie is actually about something – even though it is not.

The only interesting issue raised by the film actually has nothing to do with its plot, but rather involves a disturbing advancement in its special effects. It seems that the producers wanted to have Peter Cushing reprise his role as the sinister Grand Moff Tarkin – despite the fact that Cushing died twenty-two years ago. The solution to this apparently insurmountable problem was to hire another actor, Guy Henry, and employ cutting-edge technology to make him look exactly like Cushing. This was done with the permission of Cushing’s estate, which is duly acknowledged in the closing credits, but whenever Henry appeared, I was jolted out of my limited engagement with the story by the realization that I was watching a living simulacrum of a dead man. I suppose this is not really different from editing footage of dead actors into television commercials, but I still found it unsettling – the spectacle of an actor being forced to appear in a film without his permission. Further, the same technology could be employed to re-create living actors; so, if Daniel Craig continues refusing to play James Bond again, producers could invoke a clause in his contract allowing them to use his image and have him star in the next James Bond film anyway. All in all, I definitely think that what was done with Cushing raises ethical questions that need to be debated before this practice becomes commonplace.

All things considered, this particular review will probably be ignored, but I may be subjected to harsh rebuttals from Star Wars fans, angered by my obstinate refusal to acknowledge what a marvelous film this was. But I already said that if you really like Star Wars films, you will probably like this one; I merely happen to be one of those people who is finding less and less to like about Star Wars films, and I am obliged to provide my honest reactions. And, if more films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story keep appearing, I believe that the numbers of such disillusioned viewers are likely to grow.

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.


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