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Paul Di Filippo reviews K.J. Parker and James Morrow

Mightier Than the Sword, by K. J. Parker (Subterranean 978-1-59606-817-9, $40, 136pp, hardcover) June 2017

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, by James Morrow (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-265-4, $14.95, 184pp, trade paperback) June 2017

It seems pretty nigh inarguable that novellas are hot right now. Long esteemed as the perfect mode for fantastika–since they allow for plentiful world-building, depth of characterization and density of plot, while still being a relatively quick snack rather than the outsized banquet of a bug-crusher or a trilogy—novellas have found favor with publishers as well as readers. Part of their ascendency is also due to extra-literary reasons: congenial ebook and marketplace parameters.

Whatever has given this format its moment in the spotlight, we readers must rejoice. Especially with two fine examples such as the ones under discussion here.

Having been revealed as Tom Holt, “K. J. Parker” continues to produce his own distinctive style of story, much like Kit Reed or Joyce Carol Oates or John Banville with their alternate identities. This time around, Parker has delivered a spry, cynical, whimsical tale that combines the Howardian savageries he is known for with the breezier stylings of Holt’s comedies. A certain Wodehousian flavor is evident right from the start when we realize we are about to hear the account of a somewhat idle, somewhat foppish, but surprisingly lucky and smart nephew who is acting at the behest of a domineering aunt.

The aunt happens to be the sovereign of the Empire of the Robur (great use of that Vernean proper name, as well as all other cognomens), and her nephew is the heir apparent, our narrator. (We never learn their exact appellations, rendering these personages rather symbolic, atop their colorful individuation.) She commissions the young fellow to track down the barbarian raiders who are despoiling the various monastery communities, all of which center on their libraries. This conceit makes this book one of those somewhat rare bibliocentric fantasies, of which I’ll name just Vernor Vinge’s Tatja Grimm’s World.

And so off our boy goes, embarking on an exotic odyssey of chicanery, realpolitik, warfare, and eventual marriage to his favorite beloved prostitute. Combining Tom Jones-style picaresque with a genuine mystery McGuffin–who is behind these raids, and what do they want?–the tale offers surprises, laughter, shocks and epigrammatic flair. Parker substantiates his subcreation with a vivid backstory that covers more than a thousand years, and the bookish aspect of the tale remains central without being domineering or mawkish.

Our hero’s self-assessment will ring true to most of Parker’s audience. “Anyone who reads the right book has an ally, an advisor who’s far more clever than he is and can tell him what to do. I have a box of books that goes with me everywhere… Accordingly, I’m damned if I’m going to let the accumulated wisdom of the past perish from the face of the earth…”

Certainly this delightful frolic, composed of dark and light segments in equal measure, is a prime candidate for anyone’s box of literary treasures.

Having done such a delightful job with his previous short novel, The Madonna and the Starship (reviewed in this very venue) James Morrow continues his foray into compactified fables with a book that riffs on a very famous film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Thus, like Parker’s book, it finds inspiration for a new tale in contemplation of the glories of an extant tradition.

Also like the Parker book, this tale derives power from the idiosyncratic first-person narration. Our hero in this case is one Francis Wyndham, a fair-to-middling young artist without much of a career. The year is 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI, and Wyndham sets off to Europe to seek painterly fame and fortune. But he gets nowhere, and, down to his last franc, he takes a job as therapeutic artist-in-residence at the Träumenchen sanitarium run by one Alessandro Caligari. Once ensconced there (and told he may not leave the grounds till his employment is terminated, one way or another), Wyndham is quickly introduced to the unorthodox methodologies of the Doctor; his eccentric staff; and the bizarre patients. One of these latter, Ilona, who fancies herself the “Spider Queen of Ogygia,” will become Wyndham’s lover and co-conspirator in their quest to foil Dr. Caligari and his scheme to turn out super-soldiers for all factions willing to pay, through the use of a mystical canvas.

And so up and down the corridors of the sanitarium, then onto the battlefields of the war itself, our heroes plot and sneak and labor magically, until an ending which removes the book from mortal realms of socio-political realities into a kind of numinous epiphany.

Morrow’s solid, colorful evocation of the era is matched only by his portraiture of the zany cast. Even Wyndham, ostensibly mundane and anchored, soon partakes of the madness-that-is-truth. I was particularly enamored of Ilona’s constant stream of spoonerisms and Carrollian wordplay, but she is not alone in turning out a neat phrase. Some of the dialogue assumes a Ballardian flavor of slightly askew non-sequiturs, gnomically issued. The conceit of the psychically potent artwork fashioned by Caligari brings to mind, of course, Monty Python’s famous “Funniest Joke in the World” skit. But Morrow deftly layers in even more allusiveness. Of course, any madhouse-centric novel in this era has to tip the hat to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But I also detect some kinship with John Barth’s The End of the Road, as well as to some of the Gothic tales of E. T. A. Hoffman. But any such nods are discreet and counterbalanced by Morrow’s own unique conceptions and delivery. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari succeeds in being at once a brilliant rendering of an antique spooky passion play and a timeless lesson about megalomaniacs, art, science and love.

Both these novellas, I would maintain, offer as much pleasure as books three times their size. Snap them up!

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.

Bruce Sterling reviews Cory Doctorow

Walkaway, Cory Doctorow (Tor 978-0-7653-9276-3, $24.99, 379pp, hc) April 2017.

Imagine you’re Edward Snowden. You’re a dissident with an insider grasp of what’s going on, and it’s a whole lot worse than the mundanes were allowed to know. So you just, like, truth-bombed it. You blew the works and you jumped on a jet.

Somehow you ended up in Moscow, along with the Hawaiian pole-dancer. Donald Trump is President. Okay, that situation’s weird, but given that is modern reality, what do you, Ed Snowden, need from the science fiction genre? You need Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway.

I get it about Ed’s stated enthusiasm for this book, because this is a novel where every politi­cal and moral issue that troubles Ed Snowden has been tripled to the awesome scale of H.G. Wells Martian tripods.

Walkaway is a real-deal, generically traditional science-fiction novel; it’s set in an undated future and it features weird set design, odd costumes, fights, romances, narrow escapes, cool weapons, even zeppelins. This is the best Cory Doctorow book ever. I don’t know if it’s destined to become an SF classic, mostly because it’s so advanced and different that it makes the whole genre look archaic.

For instance: in a normal science fiction novel, an author pals up with scientists and popularizes what the real experts are doing. Not here, though. Cory Doctorow is such an Internet policy wonk that he’s ‘‘popularizing’’ issues that only he has ever thought about. Walkaway is mostly about advancing and demolishing potential political arguments that have never been made by anybody but him.

It’s not arch political parody, like Pohl and Kornbluth used to enjoy back when they were the only registered commies in town. It sounds a little like Kim Stanley Robinson taming Mars with endless Californian city-council meetings, but it’s all been weaponized. It’s truly original, different, disturbed and disturbing. It arose from a strange, gloomy world where, instead of Newt Gingrich as the world’s most powerful science fiction writer, it’s Steve Bannon, a complete post-truth viral sleazebag with no factual redlines whatsoever.

Walkaway is what science fiction can look like under modern cultural conditions. It’s ‘‘relevant,’’ it’s full of tremulous urgency, it’s Occupy gone exponential. It’s a novel of polarized culture-war in which all the combatants fast-talk past each other while occasionally getting slaughtered by drones. It makes Ed Snowden look like the first robin in spring.

As a novel, it’s got all kinds of basic plot and structural problems, but I refuse to complain about that, because so what? Walkaway is a sprawl­ing, ominous and important work of a kind one rarely sees. I’ll try to constructively complain about things that seem likely to throw readers out of the text.

I personally enjoyed these off-the-wall ele­ments, in fact I even admire them, but when you’re writing a work of radical political agitation, which is definitely what this is, you need to ease-off with the baroque frills and furbelows. A political agita­tor needs to watch it with the self-congratulatory too-cleverness, because that gets all Mensa and it intimidates the normals. Doctorow’s got that problem in spades, because he’s got an IQ high enough to boil water. Also, he’s a lot more inter­ested in hacking political ideas than he is in the authentic miseries of misgoverned populations.

He could just hammer in the nail and deftly construct his public arguments, but no: he’s got to riff it Neal Stephenson style. The Moon’s not enough for him: he’s got to go for the totally awesome lunar slingshot made from giant rubber.

The sci-fi awesome and the authentically political rarely mix successfully. Cory had an SF brainwave and decided to exploit a cool plot element: people get uploaded into AIs. People often get killed horribly in Walkaway, and the notion that the grim victims of political struggle might get a silicon afterlife makes their fate more conceptually interesting. The concept’s handled brilliantly, too: these are the best portrayals of people-as-software that I’ve ever seen. They make previous disembodied AI brains look like glass jars from 1950s B-movies. That’s seduc­tively interesting for a professional who wants to mutate the genre’s tropes, but it disturbs the book’s moral gravity. The concept makes death and suffering silly.

There’s also a ton of sex in Walkaway. Docto­row sex scenes are firmly based in an extrapolated future sexual politics, and they even advance the plot sometimes. But they’re not erotic. People who enjoy steamy sex scenes in novels are not gonna like these at all. It’s like offering the reader a horseradish Oreo. There’s something unfair about it. I don’t like to censor Cory, because he’s truly got a gift for that aspect of fiction, but if all those sex scenes were simply absent, his novel would improve.

Finally there are Cory’s compositional work-habits, which are, I think, starting to harm his creativity. Cory’s a dedicated over-achiever determined to put in a day’s hard labor, but the seams are showing. You can tell from his tone on the page when he first sits down at his keyboard, and when he gets tired and wraps-it-up it with a quip. It has that episodic feeling of A.E. van Vogt tossing in a new concept every 800 words or so. It gets rote. It’s disciplined, but it’s mechanical.

Worse yet, he’s done this so long that his char­acters are doing it now. They’ve all internalized Cory’s work habits, so that, even though they’re supposed to be wild drop-outs, free-thinkers, liberated weirdo refuseniks from post-scarcity communes, they come across as dutiful Jules-Verne figures. They’re either stacking bricks or lecturing each other. I get it that political stand-ins have to be rather plug-and-play, but they’re rendered in monotone. Their best lines are Cory Doctorow public-speech applause lines. Those are good lines – they’re tremendous even – but they’re speechy. They’re not what fictional char­acters should say as people inhabiting the world.

I don’t know how Cory will defeat this autho­rial kink; the guy’s a machine and he’s stamping solid gold here, but I’m thinking he needs to loosen up some and paint more from the shoulder. Otherwise the fate of Jules Verne beckons at him. He’s gonna become a full-time politician who writes the same adventure novel once a year, steampunk clockwork style.

I’m not worried about Cory’s literary fate. I’ve read a whole lot of science fiction novels. Few are so demanding and thought-provoking that I have to abandon the text and go for a long walk.

I won’t say there’s nothing else like Walkaway, because there have been some other books like it, but most of them started mass movements or attracted strange cults. There seems to be a whole lot of that activity going on nowadays. After this book, there’s gonna be more.

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 Ellen Klages

Wicked Wonders, Ellen Klages (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-261-6, $15.95, 288pp, trade paperback) May 2017

For decades, it seemed like Ray Bradbury was SF’s default poet of childhood, even though, with few exceptions (such as ‘‘All Summer in a Day’’), the girls in his evocative tales were notable mostly by their absence. I wonder if Ellen Klages is gradually assuming that mantle while redressing the imbalance. It’s not that all the stories in her new collection Wicked Wonders center on young female protagonists, but most of them do, and ‘‘Amicae Aeternum’’ (the most anthologized of her recent stories) reminded me at once of that early Bradbury classic. Each story involves a girl acutely aware of what she loses by traveling into space – the memory of the sun in Bradbury’s tale of a young immigrant to Venus, an entire heart-breaking litany of unrealizable experiences in Klages’s story of a girl preparing to embark on a generation starship – and both girls seem to hail from almost archetypal Midwestern towns. Similarly, Bradbury’s most famous autobiographical evocation of childhood, Dandelion Wine, involved no actual fantasy or SF at all, and the longest story here, the original novelette ‘‘Woodsmoke’’ – is equally nonfantastic in drawing from Klages’s own vivid memories of summer camp, though with a characteristic twist toward the end that lends it an almost speculative tone. Like Bradbury, Klages is notable for the clarity and unstrained elegance of her prose, though she never reaches for the self-conscious rhapsodizing that often characterized Bradbury’s later work. To the extent that Klages’s world is like Bradbury’s, it’s for the most part Bradbury without the boys and without the exclamation points.

From other perspectives, of course, Klages is nothing like Bradbury at all. She writes relatively few straight SF stories; other than ‘‘Amicae Aeternum’’ the only other real example here is ‘‘Goodnight Moons’’, a moving tale of an astronaut whose unexpected pregnancy strands her on the moon with a baby who can never return to Earth (‘‘Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox’’ plays with SF ideas, but is basically an absurdist comedy set in a ladies-who-lunch Dorothy Parker milieu). When Klages does evoke the decades of her own childhood, she relies not on nostalgia so much as on meticulous research of the sort we see in her young-adult novels and in this year’s Passing Strange. In ‘‘Gone to the Library’’ an eight-year old girl befriends a mentally challenged neighbor in early 1950s Princeton, and when Grace Hopper shows up to explain to the girl about the math of magic number squares (which the girl hopes to use to save her new friend from institutionalization), you can bet that Klages made sure that Hopper was in that place at that time. Similarly, the 1960- ish setting of ‘‘The Education of a Witch’’ – about a rebellious young girl, unnerved by her mother’s pregnancy, who identifies strongly with Malificent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty to the consternation of the adults around her – is evoked not only by details of the film, but by Shell service station signs and the almost exotic experience of going to a drive-in movie for the first time.

‘‘The Education of a Witch’’, which vies with ‘‘Woodsmoke’’ as the best-written story in the collection, also exemplifies another characteristic Klages technique, which is the restrained, judicious, and strategic use of magic. You need to pay attention to recognize that the story is a fantasy at all, and in ‘‘Echoes of Aurora’’ – which evokes an intense relationship that lasts exactly one summer, the real nature of the character of Aurora is only gradually revealed. Even when the fantasy takes us into distinctly surreal other worlds, it’s grounded in meticulously detailed mundane settings. In its frame story, ‘‘Singing on a Star’’ is simply about a six-year-old’s first sleepover with her friend down the street, but when the friend’s favorite record transports them to a bizarre, dark world called Farlingten, it becomes a truly unique exploration into – what, first-grade noir? ‘‘Friday Night at St. Cecelia’s’’ draws both on legends of Queen Mab and on popular board games like Clue and Monopoly for its fantasy world, but is grounded in a Salingeresque evocation of trying to fit in at a girls’ boarding school. ‘‘Caligo Lane’’ is set in the same 1940s San Francisco as Passing Strange – and features one of the characters in that novella, with her magical origami becoming mostly a function of real historical geography. ‘‘Hey Presto!’’ also features a Passing Strange character in a cleverly plotted tale of a science-minded young girl combining her knowledge with her remote father’s stage magic to foil a villain who might have stepped out of a pulp magazine – but it features no direct fantasy at all. The most unusual stories here, in that they involve European period settings, are both good examples of Klages’s wry comic imagination. ‘‘Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl’’ is a parody of high fantasy quests which nevertheless draws some of its best comic effects from real chemistry and food research, while ‘‘Household Management’’ is a slight and subtle jape at Holmes tales. Klages closes the collection with ‘‘The Scary Ham’’, a hilarious non-fiction piece based on an improvisation she found herself doing at a delayed Nebula Awards banquet a few years ago. It suggests that, along with the carefully structured story techniques she’s learned from writers as diverse as Bradbury and Cheever, part of Klages’s storytelling DNA derives from old radio raconteurs like Jean Shepherd or Garrison Keillor.

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 Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

The Rise and Fall of D. O. D. O., by Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland(HarperCollins/Morrow 978-0062409164, $35, 768pp, hardcover, June) 2017

Just after I had lamented, a few reviews ago, that authors were not inclined nowadays to indulge in old-school, one-on-one collaborations, along comes this giddy, engrossing romp of a novel authored by a team. It’s a seamless performance reminiscent of such ancestors as de Camp & Pratt, while still hewing to ultra-modern standards and practices for SF novels with a magical slant. One of the team, Nicole Galland, says: “Working creatively with one other person for more than a year…is 50 percent mind-melding and 50 percent keeping a deliberate distance (and 50 percent doing something in between)…” That’s the kind of partnership that produces wonders.

Despite this close cooperation, the resulting tale does not necessarily read like a 50-50 fusion of the two creators. Being quite well-versed in the works of Stephenson, yet, regrettably, not at all with the books of Ms. Galland, I feel I can nonetheless say with some confidence that the book tastes more like a Galland cake with Stephenson frosting, rather than the reverse. Stephenson describes their process as him massaging Galland’s first draft, which would indeed slant the prose towards the originating writer. But many, many distinctive Stephenson touches abound, and, as I said, the product shows no cracks or kludges, and is a pleasure to read.

Our narrator–for the most part, since intermittent sections are delivered in other first-person voices–is one Melisande Stokes, a linguist in academia struggling to get by on adjunct status. She has the good fortune to literally bump into a fellow named Tristan Lyons, a handsome rogue who proves to be part of a secret government project named D.O.D.O. He soon recruits Melisande for her polyglot abilities, but reveals little. Nevertheless, Melisande quickly learns some amazing facts. Magic was once a real, measurable force in the world, but it went extinct in 1851, due to a kind of universal wave-function collapse. The purpose of DODO is to restore magic as a workable weapon for the benefit of the USA and its allies.

Enter onto the scene Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca. (Rebecca’s journal entries provide one of the other significant voices.) Dr. Oda has built a kind of Schrodinger’s Cat Box–the cryogenically cooled ODEC–inside the tight confines of which magic is locally permissible. But how to employ it? Easy! Find the planet’s last remaining stymied inactive witch, a centuries-old gal named Erszebet Karpathy. Once inside the ODEC, the first thing feisty and willful Erszebet does is to rejuvenate herself into va-va-voom pulchritude. And then she’s ready to cast some spells.

Now this oddball team has to prove the utility of their discoveries to their government minders. They decide to embark on some time-travel jaunts, serving as impressive and also practical stunts: Tristan to Elizabethean London and Melisande to Colonial Boston. But profiting from intervention in the past proves more difficult than first envisioned. Erszebet explains that the many-Stranded multiverse resists changes until the same changes are performed multiple times on a critical mass of Strands. And there is always the danger of Diachronic Shear, where the multiverse reacts to tampering with a deadly implosive rearrangement of itself.

Not only that, but for time-travel to work from past to future, the travelers have to enlist the help of local witches (all pre-1851, of course). One of these is the Irish adept Gráinne, working as a harlot in Kit Marlowe’s London. (Her epistolary contributions form the other major first-person account.) The charming and wily Gráinne will soon prove to be no compliant catspaw, but rather a deadly schemer who will threaten not only the existence of DODO, but also the existence of our whole timeline. Only the heroic efforts of the original crew might possibly succeed in thwarting her.

The whole narrative concerns about five years of frantic and unpredictable activity, and when DODO really moves into high-gear–the invention of a time-travel computer app dubbed the Chronotron; the recruitment of many witches and martial-arts warriors; the addition of more 21st-century personnel–Galland and Stephenson switch their format from straight narration by Melisande to include numerous “multimedia” presentations: documents, transcripts, interoffice memos, etc. While it’s amusing to see this bureaucratic side of a magical operation, causing a pleasant cognitive dissonance in the reader, I tend to miss the immediacy of Melisande’s now-intermittent voice. I do have to admit that Stephenson and Galland’s ingenuity and droll humor with their documents is impressive. For instance, they manage at one point to deliver crucial information in the form of the simple list of Google search terms employed by a Viking!

In any case, Stephenson’s flair for historical recreations from a postmodern angle, as seen in his Baroque Cycle books, is on display here as well. The cast of characters, huge enough to require a glossary of names, which also includes definitions of the many acronyms and concepts, is individualized with nice touches and much verve. These larger-than-life figures bestride the events with much elan vital, especially the witches Gráinne and Erszebet. The satire on governments, militaries and bureaucracies is sharp-edged. We even get some Secret Masters action with the intervention by the ancient banking family known as the Fuggers. The general conceit–magic disappearing in the face of a paradigm shift–is hardly new (see works by Larry Niven and Matthew Hughes, for instance), but is nicely elaborated. Finally, an open-ended slambang climax offers satisfaction without full closure, pointing us towards a sequel.

Ultimately, Stephenson and Galland, full of zest and brio, have expertly assembled elements found also in Connie Willis’s time-travel forays; Kage Baker’s Company series; Liz Jensen’s My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time; and Keith Robert’s Anita, along with so much other good original stuff, into a delicious soufflé of adventure, laughter, hubris, and mind-twisting diachronic paradoxes.

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 Gregory Benford

The Berlin Project, by Gregory Benford (Simon & Schuster/Saga Press 978-1-4814-8764-1, $26.99, 480pp, hardcover) May 2017

From his wonted haunts in the intergalactic realms of space, Gregory Benford has come down to Earth–a venue he has not totally neglected in the past, given such seminal and well-received quasi-naturalistic works as Timescape–to produce a counterfactual novel in the manner of Harry Turtledove. Obviously a keen scholar of the mode, both as Turtledove practices it and as other writers who produce mainstream thriller and suspense books of this ilk deploy these techniques, Benford has adapted his style and voice to achieve a kind of plain yet gripping effectiveness akin to, oh, a Follett or a Michener or a Wouk. This means sanding down some of the poetry and recomplicated ideation. But what is not lost is the pellucid approach to scientific matters, the tight, deliberate engineering of the plot, and the pure humanity of the cast, the majority of whom are real-life figures reanimated by Benford’s pen.

Benford’s first smart stroke is to have chosen as his central protagonist a lesser-known person from a milieu where practically every historical individual was a bona-fide genius and outsized personality. As a writer who has done his own share of counterfactuals, I endorse this as a wise move. The world does not need another counterfactual novel with a played-out Mark Twain or central-casting General MacArthur in the lead role. Far better to tell a more interesting story from the POV of someone slightly off-center and less shopworn.

Thus, in his novel that focuses on the birth of the atomic bomb, circa 1938-44, Benford nominates for his lead one Karl Cohen, a scientist who does not even rate his own Wikipedia page, but who can be found in a subsection of the page of his boss, physicist Harold Urey. Cohen is pivotal because he had a scheme for faster production of the core components of the bomb, a path that was not followed in our timeline. By altering history to favor Cohen’s ideas, Benford leads us to his Jonbar Hinge: in 1944 (and at about the three-fifths mark of the novel), Little Boy, the first A-bomb, is dropped on Berlin.

Prior to that point, we have witnessed a painstaking, fascinating step-by-step reenactment, with suitable deviations from canon, of the scientific and technological journey to make that bomb. We start with Cohen’s arrival with his young French bride Marthe in New York in 1938. (The love between the two is an ongoing constant in the book, and well-drawn.) He gets a job at Columbia U. with Urey. And from there the precisely detailed chain-reaction of scientific and bureaucratic and martial interactions leads to the climactic moment. What seems inevitable or fated from our 21st-century POV is shown as contingent, accidental, or willed by sheer force of character. For a narrative that occurs ninety-percent in the lab, the tale is full of suspense. When Benford brings Cohen and unlikely spy Moe Berg into war-torn Europe on the trail of Heisenberg and the German bomb-making project, there is also some gripping face-to-face Nazi action.

And over all of this hangs a sense of the compression of major events into a small span of time. Cohen is often marveling over the immense changes he has lived through since 1938, and the reader too shares that sense of almost Homeric doings. A small coda set in 1963 tantalizingly gives us a brief glimpse of the altered world which Cohen & Company have wrought, as well as reinforcing our sense of estrangement and destiny.

Benford knows this world of R&D and academic science and government projects inside-out, and it shows in the clarity of the action. And of course all the actual engineering and physics is delivered in blackboard-crisp passages. Although painstakingly and extensively researched, this tale benefits from Benford’s intimate knowledge, which extends to his acquaintance with many of the actual scientists involved. And what a gamut of brilliance is on display, from Einstein through Bohr, Fermi, Teller, Szilard, Feynman and others. Benford limns them well.

Karl had heard Fermi refer to Leo Szilard as an “intellectual bumblebee,” for nurturing and enriching science freely and broadly. Quite right—Fermi and Szilard were opposites. Fermi was conservative, careful, methodical. Szilard was imaginative, flamboyant. Fermi seldom said anything he could not demonstrate. Szilard seldom said anything not startling and new. Fermi was humble and self-effacing. Szilard could not talk without giving orders.

Likewise, the military folks, particularly General Leslie Groves, receive their vivid moments center-stage.

One aspect lacking in Benford’s portrait of the era is any real engagement with the pop culture of the era. It’s an authentic omission, insofar as his characters are too obsessed with science to be hanging out in jazz clubs. But maybe just a glimpse of Kate Smith or Cab Calloway on the sidelines would have been nice.

The one exception to this lack is great stuff: Benford honors SF’s roots with an extended dramatization of the famous incident when government authorities came to John W. Campbell’s office to query him about the roots of the Cleve Cartmill story that seemed dangerously informed. Also, Heinlein’s conception of radioactive dust as a weapon is made much of. And lastly, an invented character, Rabbi Kornbluth, pays tribute to C. M. Kornbluth and his foundational story in this vein, “Two Dooms.”

As Benford says in his copious and intriguing “Afterword,” so much of our modern landscape was laid down by the events of World War II and its atomic climax that novels such as his hold many lessons for the present, and are not mere intellectual game-playing. The fact that the book is pure dramatic and human-interest entertainment as well is just added value for your money.

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.

A Working Model for Superhero Films: A Review of Wonder Woman

by Gary Westfahl

Without a doubt, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is the very best of the recent “DC Extended Universe” superhero films – yet the praise doesn’t mean as much as it should, inasmuch as its undistinguished precursors – Man of Steel (2013 – review here), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016 – review here), and Suicide Squad (2016 – review here) – set the bar very low, to put it mildly. (Indeed, one might ask, how could this film possibly have been worse?) Since there are plans for as many as sixteen additional installments of the series, one fervently hopes that their creators will study Jenkins’s film very closely, in order to understand why her film works when the other ones didn’t.

One important lesson to learn seems obvious enough: since the DC superheroes first became popular because of their appearances in comic books, filmmakers should generally remain faithful to the contents and spirit of their original adventures. One of the irksome aspects of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was his willingness to tinker with Superman’s and Batman’s back stories and ignore facets of their established characters, so that one watches these films regularly thinking, “Superman would never do that,” or “Batman would never do that.” In contrast, though Snyder is co-credited with Wonder Woman’s story, its other writers – Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs – must be primarily credited with a film that, with minor changes to be noted, is remarkably faithful to the longstanding traditions of Wonder Woman (even though she is never called Wonder Woman in the film), projecting a strong awareness and respect for the three aspects of the heroine that make her almost unique (and her gender, though relevant, is not the most significant issue).

First, while the abilities of most superheroes are given scientific explanations, Wonder Woman is a product of magic, long ago imbued with great powers by the ancient gods of Greek mythology and, along with her countrywomen, granted immortality and residence in an isolated, paradisal island (though the comic books also depict her Amazons as masters of superscience). Her background provides her with a special aura of gravitas and wisdom, enhanced by her official status as her island’s princess, and makes her a heroine that always commands respect, despite her incongruously revealing outfit. Here, Jenkins risks boring viewers with a slow opening sequence in order to describe the upbringing of young Diana (Lily Aspell, Emily Carey) and the reasons why the adult Diana (Gal Gadot) develops her unique perspective on the twentieth-century world, as her training includes the points that “Fighting does not make you a hero” and “War is nothing to hope for.” And while her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) describes her as “naïve,” and the film derives some humor from Diana’s unfamiliarity with western customs of dress and decorum, it also becomes clear that she is both stronger and wiser than everyone around her.

Second, Wonder Woman is not an American – neither a natural-born nor naturalized citizen. She is a citizen of the island of Themyscira, of Greek descent, who chooses to live in and assist America, but she does not adopt American attitudes or display blind loyalty to its practices. As well conveyed by Gadot’s foreign accent, Wonder Woman is an outsider who, like William Dean Howells’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894), can see the Europeans she encounters with fresh eyes and aptly criticize how they conduct their lives: with settings like Themyscira available, why do Londoners endure life in their “hideous” city? Why should generals sit in offices instead of fighting on battlefields alongside their soldiers? Is there a real difference between a secretary and a slave? Is it fair to kill someone without giving him a chance to defend himself?

Finally, while most superheroes are motivated by a general desire to help other people (Superman, the Fantastic Four), or an obsession with fighting crime (Batman, the Punisher), Wonder Woman’s special priority is bringing peace to the world; and though she recognizes in this film that the British and American combatants are generally better than their German opponents, she wants an end to hostilities more than a British-American victory. One of the most striking moments in the film comes when she confronts her ally and boyfriend Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and charges that the war god “Ares has corrupted all of you” – both the Germans and Trevor and his compatriots – and she declines to assist in his planned mission. Few films have the courage to suggest that their ostensible heroes may be just as blameworthy as their ostensible villains.

This brings me to the second reason why Wonder Woman is superior to other superhero films. The general policy in such films is to first introduce the hero and show him doing something nice (like rescuing people from a flood, or protecting an old woman from a mugger), thus instructing audiences that they should be rooting for him. Then the villain is brought on the scene, and he is shown doing something nasty (like killing a nice old man, or kidnapping somebody’s mother), thus instructing audiences that they should be rooting against him. Several skirmishes then lead to a final, all-out battle between the hero and the villain designed to make audiences cheer with delight when the virtuous hero obliterates the despicable villain. It is all as contrived as a World Wrestling Entertainment match between a man dressed as Uncle Sam and a man dressed as Osama Bin Laden.

In contrast, Wonder Woman is struggling not simply to defeat some scoundrel who engages in reprehensible behavior; she is striving to end conflict itself – in this case, World War I – and thus protect everyone, both good and bad, from its harmful effects. Her battles actually mean something; she is fighting for a good cause, and one that is deeply relevant to the contemporary world. As noted elsewhere, portentous pronouncements about life, the universe, and everything are commonplace in action films, but in this film they actually seem appropriate, as they precisely address the difficult issues Wonder Woman is wrestling with. And the emotional highlight of the climactic encounter is not the inevitable death of the chief villain, but rather the time afterwards when the ordinary soldiers around Wonder Woman get up, take off their gas masks, look around at the now-silent battlefield, and smile with joy to realize that the long ordeal of war is finally over, for both the British and the Germans.

Indeed, Wonder Woman repeatedly delivers a sharp rebuke to the innumerable other films, like Man of Steel and Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014 – review here) , that display complete indifference to the suffering of thousands of innocent victims to focus solely on the happy fates of the few characters that audiences have been properly conditioned to care about. In this film, as Wonder Woman, Trevor, and their companions pass by various anonymous people in distress, Trevor (who clearly understands film conventions) keeps telling her that they all have to be ignored so that he and the others can proceed to picking up their next plot coupon, saying, “We can’t save everyone in this war.” But Wonder Woman didn’t get the memo. She insists, indignantly, that “We need to help these people,” even if they aren’t the stars of the film, and at one point she impatiently ignores Trevor’s instructions and goes out into No Man’s Land to rescue some villagers being oppressed by occupying Germans. Once she and her friends have defeated the Germans, the relieved villagers celebrate them as heroes, and together they all enjoy a relaxing evening of dancing and drinking beer. Later, when the same village is subjected to an experimental attack of lethal gas, Wonder Woman staggers through the fumes, movingly stunned and saddened by the realization that all the people she interacted with are now dead; and audiences are moved as well, even though not one of the victims was ever given a name or a back story. This, then, is not a matter of moving chess pieces around a table; this is intelligent, moral storytelling of a sort that is sadly rare in contemporary action films.

More broadly, Wonder Woman rejects the common worldview of those films, a Manichean vision of entirely good people fighting against entirely evil people. This explains, I believe, the film’s most significant deviation from tradition: while the story again begins with soldier Steve Trevor crashing his airplane near Themyscira, then returning with Wonder Woman to fight in a war instigated by the war god Ares, the war they are entering is World War I, not World War II. True, this might be justified simply as a matter of novelty, since modern audiences have undoubtedly seen dozens of films about World War II but few if any films about World War I. Yet World War II, with the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor and the Germans setting up concentration camps, naturally lends itself to the black-and-white morality of melodrama: the Japanese and German combatants seem manifestly evil, while the Americans and their allies seem manifestly good. It is much more difficult to interpret World War I in this fashion; instead, one can readily understand Wonder Woman’s attitude that all of the combatants on both sides are good people who were manipulated by Ares into engaging in a senseless war. And while the film has villains on the German side – General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) – it takes pains to show some good Germans as well, high-ranking officers who are determined to abandon the war effort and negotiate peace in order to relieve the hunger and suffering of their soldiers, and Wonder Woman displays compassion for her foes by refusing to kill one of the prominent German villains. In addition, the British and Americans are not depicted as universally good, as Trevor notes that all of the weapons being used in the war are killing innocent people. But Trevor most directly refutes the usual ethos of contemporary films when he says that “It’s not just one bad guy to blame” for the war, but “We’re all to blame.”

Interestingly, the film also declines to echo one persistent undercurrent in the comic books: the notion that the world outside of Themyscira is flawed because it is “Man’s World,” or “Patriarch’s World,” and it is the mission of Wonder Woman to bring admirable feminine values to a world unfortunately dominated by lamentable masculine habits. However, except for two brief references to “the world of men,” the film contains no rhetoric of this kind: instead, it consistently states that people cause wars, not men, and the film tellingly underlines that point by making a female villain, Dr. Maru, the inventor of the war’s most horrific weapons.

Further, while I strive to avoid reading anything about a film before I review it, I noticed a link in one website to an article evidently complaining that this version of Wonder Woman is “less American” than previous renderings. To which I say: thank goodness! As already noted, Wonder Woman was never an American anyway, and there have been too many movies explicitly or implicitly arguing that Americans are morally superior to other people; this film briefly offers a contrasting view when Trevor’s Native American guide, the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), explains his decision to cynically focus on making money as the result of Trevor’s people taking everything away from his people. It’s refreshing to see a film wherein a sole American hero, Trevor, is primarily aided by an Amazon, a Muslim of (I believe) unspecified origins, a Native American, and two Englishpersons, and filmmakers were also careful to make Themyscira’s Amazons ethnically diverse. The only departure from inclusiveness is that Dr. Maru, or Dr. Poison, a Japanese princess in the original comic books, is here played by a Spanish actress, given the first name of Isabel, and assigned no nationality; yet this can be defended on the grounds that Japan was not a German ally in World War I, and advocacy groups are unlikely to complain that the film failed to hire an Asian actress to portray a homicidal psychopath, devoted to developing more and more lethal varieties of poison gas.

A third lesson to draw from Wonder Woman is the importance of casting. Making a superhero film, one might think the only important requirements are attractive protagonists and superior special effects; and the DC films have not always been attentive to finding the best possible performers for their efforts. Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck are satisfactory as Superman and Batman, but no one would call them the best actors ever to play those roles, and there have been some major lapses in the casting of other characters (Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Jared Leto as the Joker). In contrast, Jenkins has assembled a virtually ideal cast. True, the best casting decision may have come before her involvement – Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Like her predecessor Lynda Carter, this tall, statuesque brunette certainly looks the part, but her chief virtue may be that she is a rare actress who is also an experienced soldier, having served two years in the Israel Defense Forces. And, while I suspect that she received very little training in the sorts of acrobatics and sword play that characterize Wonder Woman’s style of fighting, she nonetheless brings a real sense of conviction both to her battle scenes and her revulsion against the effects of actual warfare. However well they might act, one suspects that Cavill and Affleck are really kind, gentle people who would not be particularly effective in a real-life conflict; but I would never want to get into a fight with Gal Gadot. As for her principal companion, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, I have no complaints about his performance, save that he unfortunately bears little resemblance to the way that the character has usually been drawn, something that consistently bothered me during the picture but may matter little to other viewers. And it’s a shame that Lucy Davis’s Etta Candy wasn’t given more to do, given her longstanding prominence in Wonder Woman stories, particularly since she announces her willingness to engage in “fisticuffs” if absolutely necessary.

So, as Joss Whedon struggles to improve what I am sure is the mess he inherited from Zack Snyder – the forthcoming Justice League film, now represented by a most unpromising preview – and as other filmmakers work on their own superhero films, Jenkins provides them with some important reminders: read the comic books attentively and follow their lead, so when your end credits automatically thank all of the writers and artists responsible for those stories, they can feel like their work was truly valued; develop a story that has substantive resonances with real-world issues, rather than a mechanical good-guys-versus-bad-guys routine with an overlay of platitudes; and carefully cast the film as if directing an intimate character study, not a mindless action film. If these steps are taken, I could actually start looking forward to, rather than dreading, my next superhero film to review.

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 Claire North

The End of the Day, Claire North (Redhook 978-0-316-31674-3, $26.00, 456pp, hc) April 2017.

Claire North seems to have emerged as the preferred pseudonym for high-concept adult fiction from the successful YA author Catherine Webb, and it earned her a Campbell Award for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and strong reviews and for the subsequent Touch and last year’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope. While none of these concepts were quite as original as they might have seemed (Touch echoed Silverberg’s ‘‘Passengers’’ and the forgettability of the central character in Hope was essentially the same superpower as a character in Westerfeld, Biancotti & Lanagan’s Zeroes a year earlier), North approached them with considerable good humor and narrative skill, developing sym­pathetic characters who could pull readers through even when the structure was occasionally less than linear. The End of the Day is her least linear tale so far, a series of mostly disconnected episodes in the career of Charlie, a rather hapless everyman whose latest job, financed by a mysterious corporate office in Milton Keynes, is the Harbinger of Death – meaning that he’s dispatched all over the world to certain individuals shortly before they are visited by Death – sometimes as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning, and sometimes to foretell the death of an idea or a tradition (one of the first victims we meet is an old woman in Peru who is the last living speaker of her language).

Beginning a novel with a character who rather blithely introduces himself everywhere as the Har­binger of Death carries with it certain risks. On the one hand, it sounds dangerously like the set-up for a Monty Python skit or a Terry Pratchett riff; on the other, it could portend a sentimental death-romance along the lines of old movies like A Guy Named Joe or Heaven Can Wait. North eventually takes us in both directions at different times – there are some distinctly funny bits, and some rather cloying inspirational speechifying toward the end – but not before she leads us through a fragmented, episodic narrative which builds thematically in the manner of earlier episodic tales as varied as Melville’s The Confidence Man, or Kosinski’s Steps or – perhaps more to the point – some of those late Harlan Ellison compound tales unified by a central, not-quite-supernatural figure like ‘‘The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore’’. Between the various episodes are snippets of conversations, presumably overheard by Charlie on his travels, which touch upon various contemporary issues from climate change to terrorism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and racism – the collective effect of which is to suggest that Death may be, if anything, a bit underworked.

Climate change is also an issue in Charlie’s first extended adventure, tracking down a scientist re­searching the ice loss in a remote area of Greenland. Later episodes have him visiting a British family fac­ing eviction because of a new housing development, traveling to Syria, to Mexico, to Nigeria where he befriends a female standup comedian, to Belarus where he’s badly beaten by thugs, and eventually to Orlando, where in his most unusual assignment he’s to drive a man named Robinson to New York, along the way encountering everyone from an un­reconstructed Klan member to a scientist who fears (perhaps more presciently than North intended) that reason is dead. Few seem to question Charlie’s unlikely occupation, even though it creates a bit of a strain with his tentative girlfriend Emmi, and every now and then his paths cross those of other apoca­lyptic horsemen Famine, Pestilence, and War. For a chapter or two, the point of view even briefly shifts to that of Death itself, who sometimes appears as male and sometimes as female (as Charlie explains, everyone sees their own version of Death). Episode by episode, North’s narrative can be gripping and vivid, but in trying to cover such a huge panorama of modern society, it veers sometimes toward editorial-cartoon allegory, sometimes toward absurd comedy, sometimes toward blunt homiletics (as when Death makes what sounds like a campaign speech about the dream represented by America), and sometimes to­ward genuine tragedy. With its fragmented structure and occasionally self-consciously meditative prose, The End of the Day might puzzle some who enjoyed the thriller plotting of The Sudden Appearance of Hope, but at its best it reaffirms the passion and ambition that have made North such a consistently intriguing writer.

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Adrienne Martini reviews Robert Charles Wilson

Last Year, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-765-33263-9, $27.99, 352pp, hc) December 2016

The past, it has been said, is another country. If you’re August Kemp in Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year, that other country is one you can monetize.

Kemp, a billionaire businessman from some­thing resembling our near future, has opened a resort of sorts in 1876. The writerly hand waving that makes this possible is mirror technology, which lives in the basement of his two towered building in the midwestern plains. Tourists from our time walk through the mirror and explore the wonders of post-Civil War life, including excursions to New York City and San Francisco. ‘‘Locals’’ or, as we’d know them, ‘‘folks who live in 1876,’’ work at the Towers and are given limited access to the wonders of the future, and wealthy tourists from the past can stay at the resort to experience indoor plumbing, among other mod cons we take for granted.

While 21st-century visitors can come and go from the time period at will, it is verboten for the 19th-century locals to do the same. Ditto future technology, like helicopters and Glocks. Jesse Cullum, a local who has worked on site for a few years, starts his security shift by saving the life of President Grant, who had been targeted by an assassin with a decidedly non-19th century gun. Callum and Elizabeth, a 21st-century woman also on the security team, are tasked with unraveling a smuggling operation and wind up getting more tied up with each other and with Kemp’s less-than-altruistic business model.

Wilson’s books never seem to go where you expect them to, which is one of the reasons why they tend to be delightfully surprising. Yes, there’s a love story, but it is one told sideways. Sure, there’s a lot of weighty musing about the downsides of tourism, but there’s also a zippy plot that features a cartoonish yet still terrifying villain. There is thrilling adventure, too, and one of the best-written fight scenes I’ve had the pleasure to read. Last Year is more complicated than it appears without ever feeling like a chore to push through.

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Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Powers of Darkness

Powers of Darkness: The Lost Version of Dracula, Bram Stoker & Valdimar Ásmundsson (Overlook Press 978-1-4683-1336-9, $29.95, 320pp, hc) December 2016.

Question: When is Bram Stoker’s Dracula not Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

Answer: When it’s Makt Myrkranna, a book whose title translates from the Icelan­dic as Powers of Darkness and which, in the early twentieth century, was published as the Icelandic-language edition of Stoker’s vampire classic. This new edition of Powers of Darkness, translated into English and with annotations by Hans Corneel de Roos, is being presented as the ‘‘lost version’’ of Dracula: ‘‘lost’’ because its existence was largely unknown to all but the most entrenched Dracula scholars until only a few decades ago; and ‘‘version’’ because it is not a pure translation of Dracula as it is known to most readers but, possibly, an interpretation whose deviations from Stoker’s novel raise questions about the genesis of both books.

On the surface, the story of the novel’s pub­lication seems fairly straightforward. In 1900 publisher Valdimar Ásmundsson serialized his translation of Dracula as Makt Myrkranna in his Reykjavík-based newspaper Fjallkonen, shortly in advance of the book’s hardcover publi­cation the following year. Stoker even contributed a preface that ran with the first serial installment in which he touted the veracity of the story’s events and likened them to the ‘‘infamous murders by Jack the Ripper,’’ which, he indicates, happened some years after them. At least initially, Powers of Darkness reads faithful to its source. It employs the same epistolary format that distinguishes Dracula, recounting through diary entries the travels of ‘‘Thomas Harker’’ – a name change from ‘‘Jonathan Harker’’ that Stoker appears to have sanctioned, since he mentions Harker by the same name in his preface – to Castle Dracula, where he gradually realizes that he has become a prisoner whom the Count will dispose of once Harker has finalized the legal arrangements necessary for Dracula’s move to England. The three vampire maidens who seduce Harker dur­ing his stay have been condensed into a single female vampire femme fatale, but several scenes in the Icelandic version track closely with those of Stoker’s original, including the one in which Harker’s careless nick of his cheek while shaving drives Dracula to a frenzy of bloodlust, and the one where Dracula, upon hearing the baying of wolves, comments ‘‘Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make’’ (rendered in Powers of Darkness as ‘‘the children of the night – what tuneful tones’’).

Serious differences between Powers of Darkness and Dracula begin about halfway in when Harker, prowling about the castle’s secret corri­dors during the Count’s nocturnal rambles, stum­bles upon a subterranean chamber where Dracula is conducting a blood orgy replete with sacrificial women and scores of bestial supplicants who have ‘‘yellowish-brown frames, with muscular struc­tures more like apes than humans.’’ The scene’s descriptions are the stuff of penny dreadfuls and they are exactly the sort of flamboyant luridness that Stoker refrained from indulging in his novel. Shortly after this, Harker runs across correspon­dence in Dracula’s library that suggests the count is conspiring with powerful figures throughout Europe to bring about a ‘‘great revolution’’ that will result in the oppression of the masses by the ‘‘chosen.’’ In Stoker’s original, of course, Dracula was entirely indifferent to human ambitions and interests, a solitary incarnation of a timeless and seemingly insuperable evil.

The most notable deviation between Powers of Darkness and Dracula, however, is in the portion of the novel set in the aftermath of Harker’s escape from the castle, as Dracula preys upon English society before being stopped by vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing and his small band of con­federates. This constitutes the biggest chunk of Stoker’s novel and it has long been criticized as a lengthy and protracted denouement to the intense gothic horrors recounted in Harker’s earlier diary entries. In Powers of Darkness, these chapters are reduced to less than a quarter of the novel’s total length. The translation dispenses with the epistolary format altogether, introduces characters nowhere to be found in Stoker’s novel (seemingly for the purpose of rushing subplots along), and hastens events to an abrupt conclusion. It reads more like a Cliff Notes outline of Dracula than a well-plotted story in its own right.

It would be easy to dismiss Powers of Darkness as just a lackluster transcription of Stoker’s novel whose translator took significant liberties with its plot, but for the fact that it features plot elements outlined in a set of notes that Stoker prepared for Dracula that first surfaced in 1913, 16 years after the novel’s publication and one year after Stoker’s death. A number of these plot points do not appear Stoker’s final version of his novel, and this prompts the question of whether Powers of Darkness was, in fact, a translation of an early draft of Dracula. (It has long been specu­lated that the well-known short story ‘‘Dracula’s Guest’’, which Stoker’s widow Florence passed off as a chapter cut from the final novel is, in fact, an excerpt from an early draft of Dracula.) De Roos bolsters this supposition by pointing out that several characters in Powers of Darkness who do not appear in Dracula have names that echo those of people whom Stoker knew in real life. It is not clear how Ásmundsson would have gotten access to an early draft of Dracula, since Stoker is not known to have traveled to Iceland himself. But Stoker’s friend and fellow novel­ist Hall Caine – nicknamed ‘‘Hommy Beg’’ in Stoker’s dedication for Dracula – did, and both de Roos and Stoker’s great-grand-nephew Dacre Stoker (who provides a foreword to this edition) speculate that Caine may have helped to make the publication of Powers of Darkness possible.

This edition of Powers of Darkness raises more questions about Dracula than it answers. If it represents a translation into the Icelandic from an early draft of Dracula then, as Dacre Stoker posits, might it be worthwhile to study other early translations to see whether they too might have been made from early drafts – and what they might reveal about the process by which Stoker shaped his final text? And at what point between 1890 and 1897, the years that Stoker is known to have been working on Dracula, did he refine its text from the pulpy potboiler that Powers of Darkness suggests it might have started out as? We may never know the answers to these questions, and even if we did they would be ir­relevant to our appreciation of Dracula and its translation. Powers of Darkness is an interesting artifact. It does not read well on its own merits; it flails and flounders in directions full of potential that it never quite capitalizes on. As a sidebar to Dracula, though, the ur-text for vampire fiction for more than a century and a foundation of the horror genre, it raises intriguing ‘‘what-if’’ pos­sibilities.

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Contractual Obligations: A Review of Alien: Covenant

by Gary Westfahl

In contemporary Hollywood, the announced information about a film often conveys an implied contract – a covenant, as it were – between filmgoers and filmmakers: if you buy a ticket to see this movie, you are guaranteed to experience certain desired forms of entertainment. Thus, a picture with the word “Alien” in its title, directed by Ridley Scott, promises potential viewers that they will observe numerous images of H. R. Giger’s iconic “xenomorphs” bursting out of human bodies and energetically attacking any person in their vicinity. And unquestionably, Alien: Covenant fulfills its contractual obligations: so, if you have been longing to watch scene after scene of lunging aliens latching on the faces of intended victims and gruesomely slaughtering every one of them, this film represents the answer to your prayers. The very open question is whether anyone without that fervent yearning will want to sit through two hours and three minutes of this otherwise lamentable movie.

There is no need for reviewers to be coy about the film’s basic plot, since that is also part of the implied contract. So, when the good starship Covenant, carrying a minimal crew and large population of hibernating colonists, gets an enigmatic message from a planet that seems ideal for human habitation, everyone in the theatre knows that they will land on its surface and promptly encounter the first of many homicidal grotesqueries that will proceed to kill off crew members one by one while the survivors strive to both slaughter the pesky aliens and ensure that they don’t get on board the ship and infest the entire galaxy. To be sure, Scott and his writers (Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper), perhaps after finding Ezra Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” in one of the books of quotations they kept consulting while polishing the script (as discussed below), do endeavor to add a veneer of novelty to the tried-and-true pattern they were obliged to follow, but the results of their ruminations are less than inspiring. Hey, let’s make some of the xenomorphs look a little different – explaining that they are “hybrids” of the original species and the creatures they penetrated, cannibalized, and emerged from – but don’t make them look too different, because we don’t want to disappoint the fans. Of course, emulating the famous scene in the original Alien (1979), we have to show a baby alien erupting out of a man’s chest, but we can also have one come out of a man’s back and a man’s mouth. Remember how neat it was when the alien attacked Ellen Ripley in her underwear? Why not have an alien attack a naked woman and man taking a shower? And the first film employed the hoary horror-film device of making the characters believe that the monster has been destroyed, then bringing it back on the scene for a final shocker; so, this time, why don’t we do it not once, but twice? One already starts to dread what Scott and writer/director Neil Blomkamp might dream up for the next Alien film now being planned – an alien bursting out of a man’s buttocks?

Still, a film cannot consist entirely of battles with vicious aliens, and Alien: Covenant also features ample doses of down time to allow audiences to relax and provide opportunities to develop characters and provocative themes; but the film’s quiet moments are disappointing as well. Consider my favorite part of the film – the opening, alien-free sequence when a huge starship, solely controlled by the robot Walter (Michael Fassbender), is suddenly beset by a “neutrino surge” that damages its systems and requires Walter to reawaken the ship’s fifteen-person crew, who must then decide whether to continue on to their original destination or “take a look” at the new world they have just discovered. Here is a story that Hollywood hasn’t told a thousand times before, and I think it would have been far more interesting to have the starship proceed on its planned journey, as in the sedate but nonetheless involving Czechoslovak film Ikarie XB-1, aka Voyage to the End of the Universe (1963). The film also nods to tradition by showing a burial in space, as a body is dispatched to drift through the void, as occurs in many science fiction stories and the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982); and when protagonist Daniels (Elizabeth Waterston) proposes to lure the alien into outer space because it is “our turf,” she suggests that her crew are thoroughly comfortable in that environment.

Yet the standout scene in this part of the film, when two astronauts don spacesuits to venture outside their ship to effect repairs, is a huge letdown. In sharp contrast to the meticulously sustained realism of Gravity (2013 – review here), or even the short spacewalks in Passengers (2016 – review here), Scott’s outer space never looks real; a character exclaims “You should see this view,” but audiences will always be aware that they are looking at actors on wires in a studio with a black backdrop. Given the talent and resources that Scott could command, his inattentiveness to this potentially memorable scene is surprising; but clearly, he just didn’t care, and perhaps assigned his son, second-unit director Luke Scott, to handle all the outer-space stuff while he was busy consulting with the special-effects people about another alternate model for the xenomorphs. (It may be telling that one character exclaims, “I hate space!” – which is, after all, the one place where the aliens cannot survive.)

Alien: Covenant is also an official sequel to Scott’s Prometheus (2012 – reviews here and here), which intriguingly intimated that strange white-skinned aliens, after first engendering the human race and monitoring its progress, turned against their progeny and bioengineered the xenomorphs to bedevil and eventually exterminate the species. One would have expected that this film would have more to say about these matters; however, while the film’s prologue has Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) explaining that he created the robot David (also Fassbender) to help answer “the only question that matters” – “Where do we come from?” – the film unfortunately proceeds to ignore the issue of humanity’s origins, and the xenomorphs’ origins for that matter, while wryly acknowledging the absence of explanations by having a character complain, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense.”

Instead, it seems, Scott and his writers resolved to present their story as a thoughtful exploration of humanity’s destiny. “Humans,” David announces, “are a dying species,” seeking to colonize other worlds solely as a desperate effort to remain viable. As David sees it, though, humanity is destined to be supplanted by the xenomorphs, who are “perfect” creatures – a notion perhaps derived from an imperfect reading of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), observed in the film and listed in the credits. But can one seriously maintain that the ultimate goal of evolution has always been to produce a species that would mindlessly exterminate every creature it sees and thus drive itself to extinction? I am strangely reminded of Dr. Alfred Brandon’s argument in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) that the only way for humanity to advance is to turn people into werewolves. And since David, like Brandon, has clearly gone insane, that would call into question the seemingly more defensible notion that robots might someday emerge as humanity’s successors; true, the improved model Walter seems more stable, but we are told that he has a shortcoming as well, as he is inherently incapable of being creative. The film also appears to denigrate robots by showing a table on board the Covenant with one of those automatic drinking bird toys, an image of both mechanical endurance and mechanical ineffectuality.

Reinforcing the theme of human destiny are the two literary references that recur throughout the film: Percy Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818), announcing the inevitable decline and fall of mighty leaders, suggests that humanity is doomed; and Richard Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold (1869) suggests that new godlike beings, like xenomorphs and robots, are arriving to take our place. However, these are only the most prominent of the film’s numerous allusions to both high culture and popular culture; indeed, even if Scott and his writers did not really consult books of quotations, one could almost compile such a book by reading their portentous screenplay.

First, since the crew’s new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) describes himself as a “person of faith,” references to the Bible are hardly unexpected: a person skeptical of the new planet’s virtues is derided with the phrase “Oh ye of little faith”; searching for a missing crewmate, Oram says he must “gather my stray flock,” like a Good Shepherd; accounting for his questionable activities, David observes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”; and he says that a dead person has “left this vale of tears.” An adage associated with Saint Ambrose, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is partially quoted when Walter joins crewmates drinking a toast by saying, “When in Rome …” John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is referenced when David tells Walter that he must “serve in Heaven or reign in Hell”; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is cited when David, having long been alone on the planet, describes himself as “Crusoe on his island”; and Lord Byron is mentioned when David misidentifies him as the author of “Ozymandias.” As for popular culture, David at one point sings a line from “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” (1892), suggesting his belief that he has hit the jackpot by encountering the Covenant and its accessible resources. A scarred crewman is said to resemble The Phantom of the Opera (1925), presumably referencing Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance in the silent film because the speaker says that he didn’t know it was also a musical. The message that attracts the Covenant to the aliens’ planet is a garbled version of John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971), indicating an effort to delude them into believing that the world would, in fact, become their ideal new home. And when a crewman beginning starship repairs shouts, “Let’s get this party started,” he recalls Pink’s 2001 hit, “Get the Party Started.” This list is certainly not complete, but one can only take so many notes in a darkened theatre.

Clearly intended to make the film seem deep and meaningful, all of these references are actually irritating, since they are so palpably incongruous. Let’s face it: despite its pretensions, Alien: Covenant is not a profound meditation on the human condition; it’s a gore-splattered horror film. And one cannot transform the Grand Guignol into Hamlet by having the butchers quote Shakespeare. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making gore-splattered horror films, since that’s how many people want to be entertained, but Scott and his writers denigrate their own work by conveying that they are ashamed of what they are doing and want to make it seem like something it’s not.

There is, though, precisely one serious issue that the film actually explores, albeit in an understated and sporadic manner, and that is the conflict between religion and science. At the start of the film, Oram laments that he was not named the captain of the Covenant because his superiors believed that a “person of faith” could not make “logical, rational decisions.” And almost immediately, he seemingly confirms that attitude by failing to make the logical, rational decision to proceed to the ship’s original destination and diverting to a planet broadcasting a John Denver song (that praises a place said to be “almost Heaven”) – in part because of a perceived moral duty to rescue possible imperiled humans. Yet after the aliens show up, Daniels, who protested his decision and now has an ideal opportunity to say “I told you so,” instead asserts that “We need your faith” in dealing with this menace; and that faith fleetingly appears to be an asset when he confronts David in the company of an alien that he is surprisingly not attacking. Oram announces, “I met the devil when I was a child,” undoubtedly because he now again recognizes the devil in the persons of the alien and its apparent ally, David. The robot, a presumed atheist who also describes himself as “an amateur zoologist,” adopts the proper scientific attitude of withholding judgment on alien beings that might merit scientific scrutiny and might be transformed into friends; and he would denounce Oram for his distorted, Manichean belief that he is good and the aliens are evil. Yet Oram’s religious perspective, of course, is absolutely right: David and the aliens are indeed devilish, as David himself acknowledges by mentioning “the devil’s workshop” and preferring the Devil’s choice to “reign in Hell.” All of this recalls the dispute that surfaces in the original cinematic ancestor of the Alien films, The Thing (from Another World) (1951): the foolish scientist wishes to preserve and study the alien “intellectual carrot,” while the wise soldiers resolve to kill it. (One also remembers that the introduction to the original Frankenstein [1931] criticizes Frankenstein as “a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.”) Vindicating religion, and condemning science, thus represents yet another longstanding tradition in science fiction film that Alien: Covenant accepts and perpetuates.

Finally, in one marginalized respect, this film should be heartening to science fiction enthusiasts; for unlike the 1979 film, which featured a small starship with a seven-person crew, Alien: Covenant begins and ends inside a huge space ark, partially powered by immense solar sails, with 2000 colonists necessarily hibernating during a long journey – which represents, realistically, the only way that humans will ever travel to other solar systems. In earlier science fiction films, interstellar travel was either not depicted at all, or portrayed as fast and easy, as the starships of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises blithely “warped” from star to star in a matter of days, if not hours. Films depicting large starships traveling at sub-light speeds to distant stars were rare; only the aforementioned Ikarie XB-1 and the wretched television series The Starlost (1973) immediately come to mind. Yet in the past decade, I have reviewed four films – Wall▪E (2008 – review here ), Pandorum (2009 – review here ), Passengers, and this film – that feature variations on this form of interstellar travel. Considering the other trend I have noted elsewhere – increasing numbers of “spacesuit films” featuring near-future astronauts facing plausible threats in the Solar System, like Gravity and The Martian (2015 – review here), one might conclude that audiences are growing weary of the magical space adventures of Star Trek and Star Wars and are increasingly interested in how humanity might actually conquer space in the decades, and centuries, to come. So the central conceit of the Alien films – that we are likely to meet up with relentlessly lethal alien monsters – may be silly, but the franchise’s background is becoming more plausible. And that, if nothing else, is a reason to celebrate Alien: Covenant.

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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