The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field

Locus Online
   subscribe
Sub Menu contents


Recent Posts

Categories

Archives

 




 

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Faren Miller reviews Brian Staveley

Skullsworn, Brian Staveley (Tor 978-0-7653-8987-9, $27.99, 318pp, hc) April 2017. Cover by Richard Anderson.

Brian Staveley’s Unhewn Throne trilogy followed separate plotlines for three royal siblings in tomes as massive as classic epic fantasy, yet with a very different tone, spiced with X-rated language and bad attitude. Though Skullsworn is just as brash, and takes place in the same world – where long-lived, almost godlike beings ruled ancient empires that clashed then vanished into realms of myth as humans took over – it leaps ahead in time, perhaps by centuries, and has little to say about those beings (until disaster strikes, midway through the book).

First-person narrator Pyrre Lakatur may lack those earlier protagonists’ uncanny links to magic, but she displays plenty of attitude, angst, and pas­sion for her god during a crucial Trial – a rite of passage when she’s 25. Well trained by assassin-priests serving the god of Death, Pyrre decides to undergo the test in Dombâng, the steaming tropical city where she spent her early years as a ‘‘canal urchin.’’ To succeed, she must kill seven people in fourteen days – one victim a person she loves. Like sexually active twenty-somethings anywhere, Pyrre still isn’t sure she can feel deeper emotion, but challenges herself with a man from an old affair. When she left him, Ruc Lan Lac was a roving pugilist in another town. Here in Dombâng, he commands the Greenshirts: imperial guards charged with maintaining order in a colony still restless, centuries after conquest.

Pyrre has two Witnesses, former mentors whose alternating secret watch on the murders leaves them with time to pursue their own interests. In the lusty prime of life, Ela cuts a swath through handsome local males, plus a few females, while she regards her protégée’s worries about true love as dismal in one so young. Crusty older Kossal would rather track down rumors of gods or monsters lurking in the deadly swamps around the city. He gets his chance when Pyrre (now back in Ruc Lan Lac’s good graces) goes with the Greenshirts to investigate a grisly boat­load of massacre victims, stranded in swampland.

Over the course of killings and adventures, Skullsworn explores deeper issues – love and death, humanity and Other – without becoming ponderously profound, thanks to the heroine’s slum argot and raw memories, and her Witnesses’ gritty voices of experience. Stavely pulls it all off with style.

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 John Kessel

The Moon and the Other, John Kessel (Saga 978-1-4814-8144-1, $27.99, 600pp, hc) April 2017.

After what seems like decades of being sidelined as a bench player, with Mars and the outer solar system getting much of the action in novels by Paul McCauley, Alastair Reynolds, and others, and with Kim Stanley Robinson striving to convince us that generation starships are a Really Bad Idea, the moon is back! Perhaps it’s just the next logical extension of SF’s trend of drawing back from galaxy-hopping space operas to more achievable futures, but with John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other and the second volume of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, the novelistic possibilities of lunar colonies seem to be having a small renaissance. The two novels don’t really warrant comparison, since they set out to do very different things, although from a hard-SF point of view it’s mildly interesting that Kessel favors sealed craters protected by regolith while McDonald tends to opt for lava tubes and deep boreholes like underground high-rises.

In much earlier SF – at least going back to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and probably long before – the default narrative of moon colonies (and later of Mars and the outer Solar System) seemed to be based on the American Revolution, with Earth standing in for crotchety old Europe and the moon a haven for all sorts of social ex­periments. There’s a taste of the latter in Kessel’s fiercely intelligent novel – most of the tension is between the secular Iranian utopian experiment Persepolis and the rigidly matriarchal Society of Cousins – but there’s not much discussion of Earth at all (although Earth culture shows up ev­erywhere – people quote Yeats, Hafez, and Blake, and a media celebrity has a named borrowed from a Chuck Palahniuk novel). Instead, Kessel fo­cuses on a cast of fascinating and often conflicted characters, and on on the political, moral, and personal challenges they face – challenges that sometimes derive from his imaginary societies (such as what a custody battle might look like in a heavily politicized matriarchy), and sometimes from the lunar setting (I’m pretty sure no other lunar novel has ever tackled the problem of how you’d go about building a piano on the moon).

Kessel has produced far fewer novels than most of us would like to see – it has been 20 years since the delightfully Preston Sturges-flavored Corrupting Dr. Nice – but has largely made up for it with a brilliant succession of stories, four of which share the same general future and a few characters with The Moon and the Other. One of those stories, the almost-instant-classic ‘‘Stories for Men’’ (classics by definition aren’t instant, but this story holds up well more than a decade later) earned him a Tiptree Award in 2003. But as Kessel points out in an afterword, The Moon and the Other isn’t entirely consistent with those stories, and they are in no sense prerequisites for the novel, which is almost certainly his finest yet. Though not lacking in his characteristic wit, it moves well beyond the satirical dark humor of Good News from Outer Space and Corrupting Dr. Nice and invites us – actually compels us – to consider just how vexing issues of gender, author­ity, responsibility, and even celebrity can get in the real world.

The story begins with Erno Pamelasson, whom we met as a teenager in the earlier stories. Though a trained biotech, Erno has bummed around several moon colonies as an itinerant worker since his exile from the Society of Cousins; he’s even shortened his name to Pamson, partly to disguise the Nordic-style matrilineal surname that would give away his origins. By now, in the mid-22nd century, the moon has a population of over three million scattered over more than two dozen colonies and various research stations. After a stupid lapse of judgment while ice-mining causes the loss of a Remote Operating Device, his hand, and almost his life, Erno comes to the attention of Amestris Eskander, daughter of one of the most powerful industrialists in Persepolis. Rather than simply fire him, though, the rebellious Amestris offers to marry him and brings him into her father’s company as an executive, where he promptly gets in way over his head, partly over that issue of how to grow piano-quality wood in the sealed lunar environments.

Meanwhile, over in the Society of Cousins, another rebellious figure, Mira, has gained a reputation as a subversive gadfly through a series of guerilla video installations – appearing almost randomly, like graffiti – while she juggles a rather steamy affair with a media celebrity and former Lunar Olympic champion Carey Evasson – who in turn becomes entangled in that custody battle over his son Val at the very time that a contro­versial referendum has been proposed to grant suffrage to men in the Society. (Carey is also the author of a popular memoir titled Lune et l’autre, echoing Kessel’s own title.) These various con­troversies are inflamed by one of the novel’s most interesting and enigmatic characters, a Geraldo Rivera-like celebrity investigative reporter who is an ‘‘uplifted’’ dog (various genetically altered animals, from dogs to apes to capuchin monkeys, are a problematical part of lunar society). This one, named Sirius in an apparent homage to Olaf Stapledon’s canine genius, also turns out to hold a few surprises. We’ve seen genetically uplifted animals before, of course, but Kessel reminds us that human-like behavior doesn’t fully disguise what is essentially an alien intel­ligence. The other secondary characters, from Amestris’s manipulative father to Carey’s son Val, his estranged partner Roz, and the influential public intellectual Hypatia Camillesdaughter, also emerge as substantial, complex characters with issues of their own.

As in the earlier stories, Kessel does not pres­ent either society in purely utopian or dystopian terms. Persepolis indeed seems to be the sort of patriarchal society that the Friends tried to escape, with its rigid class system and even ‘‘debtor’s freezers,’’ but there’s no avoiding the repression and unfairness in the Cousins’ own society – based on the premise that violence emerges from male privilege, and that constraining that privilege can lead to stability. Transgendered women, however, also feel oppressed by the Society, es­sentially treated as men. As in the earlier stories, Kessel is aware that gender is more than simply binary, and the interrelationships of gender and power are convoluted in both societies. Neverthe­less, the central crisis of the novel emerges when a delegation from the Organization of Lunar States – including Erno – is sent to the Society of Cousins to investigate human rights violations. As tensions escalate, Kessel also reveals a satis­fying degree of science fictional invention to go with his political and psychological insights; we learn of a top-secret matter duplicator that might have come out of Budrys’s Rogue Moon, and a spectacular disaster reminds us of the old cliché that, no matter how elaborate and protected your habitats, the moon fundamentally wants to kill you if you go there. The Moon and the Other brilliantly balances character, social commentary, and hard SF in a novel of surprising density and depth of feeling.

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 Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Penguin Random House/Broadway 978-0-553-41973-3, $16, 464pp, trade paperback) May 2017

When I reviewed Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs for Asimov’s a few years back, I said, in part:

City of Stairs is remarkably fresh and fun and well done, reminiscent of the work of Paul Park in The Starbridge Chronicles and Daniel Abraham in The Long Price Quartet. Bennett’s fifth novel is a shining example of New Weird which proves that the youthful genre has legs beyond any immediate faddishness, when executed with ingenuity and skill…. Bennett tells a thrilling, formidable story which exhibits the perfect ratio of naturalism to the fantastic, of action to philosophy, of characterization to setting, of humor to tragedy.”

I was unable immediately to enjoy the sequel, City of Blades. But now that the third, concluding book, City of Miracles, is here, I think it’s time to catch up.

To recap Bennett’s worldbuilding setup first, in a very compact nutshell. Once upon a time, the land dubbed simply the Continent was alive with actual deities–the Divinities–whose efforts had created a fairyland of cities and culture for the human inhabitants. But the deities were all killed by invaders, and with their deaths the physical structures they had raised and the systems of trade and governance and worship all collapsed, leaving behind a wasteland of ruins for the Continental citizens. Thereupon the remote nation of Saypur came in and took control, and have now ruled for seventy-five years. Their ultimate goal is to rebuild the place and make it a functional colony. Of course, there is much resistance from the natives.

Diving into the second book, we see that Bennett has taken an admirable tack: rather than simply continue the adventures of main characters Shara and Sigrud, as detailed in the first volume, he has jumped ahead in time and shifted the spotlight to a different protagonist, another player from City of Stairs, General Turyin Mulaghesh. The book opens in archetypical fashion: gunfighter called back into action. Mulaghesh, having retired from the military, is now living a hermit’s existence. But Shara, currently prime minister of Saypur, needs her friend back in action, and so Mulaghesh reluctantly complies. She is sent to the city of Voortyashtan, once the domain of the goddess Voortya, ostensibly to investigate a strange new substance with economic potential that has been found there. Upon her arrival, Mulaghesh finds an old comrade, General Biswal, in charge. Immediately she is plunged into various conspiracies and disasters. What she discovers is that the ancient City of Blades, a kind of supernatural Valhalla full of Voortya’s warriors, is about to be reawakened, plunging the world again into war. Many sacrifices are made to thwart the plot, and many surprise reveals of who the bad actors actually are occur.

This second book continues Bennett’s deft and deep exploration of the various corners of his subcreation, which rings as real as our world. Lots of exotic cultural tidbits with an organic feel. And his characterization moves are equally fine, with Mulaghesh vibrating off the page.

True to his vector, Bennett shifts the focus laterally again in this conclusion to the trilogy. He has placed, center-stage, Sigrud Harkvaldson, who has been present since the first book. Implacable killing machine-cum-espionage agent and bodyguard and loyal giant samurai to his worshipped Shara Komayd. He was a standout feature of both first and second books, and now dominates even more intensely.

We open with a harrowing set-piece, as a professional assassin named Khadse stalks then murders Shara, who, some twenty years after the events of City of Stairs, has attained political power, then abandoned power, and is now embarked on a private and mysterious program/quest of her own. Meanwhile, in a distant lumber camp, Sigrud has estivated without much joie de vivre, just existing, after the traumatic events of Book Two in which his beloved daughter Signe was killed. Learning of the murder of his old partner Shara, he powers back up into full spy tradecraft mode and sets out to track down her killer.

We get another great and absorbing and stimulating setpiece as Sigrud homes in on Khadse and takes him down violently, not without costs to himself. From the man he learns of the mysterious patron named Nokov who ordered the hit, and who is intent on killing a host of other figures. But Nokov is more than a mere human–he is in fact a half-Divine creature with amazing powers and a sociopathic, megalomaniacal worldview. And Nokov has in his sights Taty Komayd, Shara’s adopted teenage daughter, who has gone missing upon her mother’s death.

The rest of the book is a hurdle across many venues, a cat-and- mouse game in which Sigrud and his allies have to stay one step ahead of Nokov to frustrate his plans for world domination. Finished pretty much with any fresh worldbuilding–that activity was executed sufficiently in the first two books–Bennett can now use his well-established venues and cultures as stagesets for incredible action. The long surreal aerial battle in Chapter 10 is just one of the many pulse-pounding intervals in this headlong chase.

But Bennett certainly does not neglect the fantastical elements of his tale, which are integral to the action. There are lots of fresh novums unloaded here, such as the time-manipulation powers of another hybrid figure. Moreover, Bennett uncorks the secret backstory that has been lurking below all the previous events. He ties up all the loose threads and truly satisfies with the world-shaking climax and upbeat aftermath. The fact that the pivotal events take place in Bulikov, the City of Stairs, adds a nice circular resonance to the trilogy.

And Bennett does not stint on new characters, the brightest and most vibrant of whom are all women. Besides Taty, we get Malwina, the half-Divine prodigy with the chronal powers; Ivanya, Taty’s brash millionaire godmother; and on the evil side, Kasvitha Mishra, human ally to Nokov. Their fresh presence is pivotal and colorful.

Ultimately, the arc of Sigrud life’s is boldly completed, and his understanding of himself and the world form the true prize in his long hard quest.

What Bennett had delivered here is something along the lines of Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE: a brainy political thriller with non-mimetic trappings, an unnatural engine at its heart. For Stephenson, it was cyberspace and virtual reality that constituted the frosting on the action-packed plot. For Bennett, it’s the New Weird of his various Cities and the occult workings at the foundation of his subcreation. Both writers managed to fuse their two disparate realms into a brilliant hybrid form, proving that unprecedented miracles can still occur in a dusty old world.

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 Bud Sparhawk

Non-Parallel Universes, by Bud Sparhawk (Fantastic Books 978-1-5154-1020-1, $14.99, 268pp) May 2017

Publisher and editor Ian Randal Strock is a friendly and energetic indie-press presence at many conventions, hawking his suite of novels and collections under the imprint of Fantastic Books. You might very well have seen his table full of great books in one huckster room or another. If so, you should snatch up any titles you want right then and there (or order from the website of Fantastic Books).

One of their 2017 offerings is this collection of Bud Sparhawk’s short fiction, nineteen stories deriving from 2007 to 2015. His third such assemblage, after his short-story debut in 1976, the book illustrates Sparhawk’s talent and tenacity in equal measures. Congratulations on forty-plus years of entertaining his readers! I won’t be able to give details on all of the nearly twenty stories in this space, but will simply highlight my favorites that convey a sense of his work.

The book kicks off with a story both brainy and heart-tugging, “Astronomic Distance/Geologic Time.” Belying its somewhat bland title, the story succeeds on both the microcosmic level–a boy, his dog, a family–and the macrocosmic level: a fleet of interstellar probes that travels for millions of years on a quest for knowledge. Sparhawk’s yoking of the visceral with the intellectual is indicative of his deep SF lineage.

“The Suit” is a droll look at the Internet of Things, worthy of Sheckley or Tenn: “YOU SHOULD NOT INDULGE IN ICE CREAM, my underwear informed me.” Here we see Sparhawk’s penchant for not taking things too seriously all the time, while yet dealing with matters of true import to the human condition. He returns to this same future in “The Snack,” this time with an emphasis on advances in medicine.

“Encounter in a Yellow Wood” blends a love story with a discourse on the rivalry between biotech and hardware, as our protagonist–the biotech patron–has to confront the limits of his own remediation techniques in a world rife with trouble spots and hot zones. Sparhawk here is careful not to weight the controversy one way or another.

Next up is “The Old Man’s Best,” which has a lot of fun examining the trials of some thirsty space workers out around Jupiter who seek to brew their own booze. It reads like a missing vital episode out of Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn universe. Both “True Friends” and “Tommy and the Beast” conflate warfare with mankind’s love of their companion animals, producing tragic yet well-earned and unsentimental heartbreak. The short-short “Delivery” (there are several good flash fictions in this volume) ends with a quiet zinger that Fredric Brown would have been proud of.

Take a veteran who’s been mind-wiped of his wartime activities in the name of easing his return to civilian society. Add in a lonely woman who falls for him. Finally insert a local lawman who had been the woman’s prior lover, and who resents the “Amnesty vets.” That’s “Forgiveness,” a love triangle infused with real technological riffs, representing what Sturgeon defined as the true essence of SF: “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.”

Two stories here seem allied, and account for my two favorite reading experiences of this book. Both attempt to survey a posthuman universe. The first, “Ten Winks to Forever,” starts with a hero who hails essentially from our condition. He becomes a “wink” pilot, making larger and larger relativistic hops across the cosmos, until he is alienated from the galactic culture that has outpaced him by developing in slower realtime. This story stands in the great tradition of “Scanners Live in Vain” and “Aye, and Gomorrah.” Its cousin piece is “Pilgrim,” which rather inverts the scenario of its companion tale. We start with a posthuman protagonist who journeys further and further backward into the archaeological past, until at last he confronts a talisman of all that has changed, an ancient robot.

Lastly, “Slider” again exemplifies the Sturgeon approach, delving deep into family dynamics which are warped by the introduction of a kind of body-mod tech that will allow the family’s son to enjoy a glorious life, but a brief one, in the world of sports.

The fact that the majority of these stories appeared in Analog magazine offer us a useful way to think about Sparhawk and his career. If the term “Analog writer” means anything anymore, long after John W. Campbell’s death, the description has to encompass and be enshrined in the person of Bud Sparhawk. Like Christopher Anvil and Eric Frank Russell, like James Schmitz and Tom Purdom, Sparhawk offers us unflashy, solid tales which nonetheless often extend SF’s remit. He never neglects either real technological novums nor humanistic story-telling values. He does not privilege message over entertainment, nor vice versa, but rather tries to keep both in balance. And in the end, he’s all about the art and the history and traditions of the genre, not self-aggrandizing grandstanding.

I call that a valuable gift to the community of readers and a proud and honorable legacy.

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 Elizabeth Hand

Fire, Elizabeth Hand (PM Press 978-1-62963-234-6, $13.00, 118pp, tp) January 2017.

PM Press’s ongoing series of chapbook mis­cellanies of ‘‘outspoken authors’’ – basically appetizer-size collections of fiction, non-fiction, and interviews – can at their best convey a sense of meeting an old radical friend in a bar, sharing a few memories, and catching up on things. The authors featured so far are a stunning line-up – Le Guin, Bisson, Moorcock, Doctorow, Rucker, Piercy, Arnason, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler, and more. Elizabeth Hand’s Fire, the series’ 18th volume, offers a cross-section of Hand’s work as both author and critic: a new title story, insightful appreciations of Thomas A. Disch and Alice Sheldon, a slightly updated autobiographical essay originally written for Foundation, an interview conducted by Terry Bisson, and two stories from her 2006 collection Saffron and Brimstone, which warrant revisiting not only because that book didn’t seem to earn the wide attention it deserved.

‘‘Fire’’, the one original story, sets the tone for the three fiction selections, and it’s a pretty apocalyptic tone at that. A disparate group of people – a reality TV performer, a poet, a docu­mentary filmmaker, a firefighter, and an artist and illusionist – find themselves trapped for several days in a research station by one of those rag­ing wildfires that have increasingly plagued the mountain states in recent years; only we quickly get hints of a broader scenario – terrorists using drones to start fires, an ominous reference to the ‘‘LA megafire last year,’’ lights in the sky that turn out to be entire flocks of birds on fire. The narrator is the TV performer nervously trying to put a breezy, stand-up spin on a desperate situa­tion, so the elegant, measured language at which Hand is so masterful is hardly in evidence here, but the image of the burning birds is haunting, as is a series of charcoal drawings with which the artists has covered the walls of the station, ‘‘Like someday in ten thousand years, someone will find this bunker and see it and they’ll understand what happened.’’ That image links the story thematically to one of the reprints, ‘‘The Saffron Gatherers’’, which concerns a science fiction writer named Su­zanne – once specializing in apocalypse, but lately turning to more benign time-travel tales – who is fascinated by the preserved ruins of Santorini following the massive ancient volcanic eruption. While she is visiting San Francisco, her lover, a wealthy journalist, presents her with a rare volume of murals from the site, including one called the Saffron Gatherers. Randall points out that, ironi­cally, without the volcanic ash to preserve it, all this art would have been lost over the centuries. But as Suzanne leaves, she witnesses another massive disaster unfolding from the window of her plane, putting Santorini in ironic perspective. ‘‘Kronia’’, probably the most experimental but most beautifully written piece here, is a haunting, time-shifting romance involving the 2001 attack on the twin towers. In Saffron and Brimstone, this story and ‘‘The Saffron Gatherers’’ were presented as part of a set of variations called ‘‘The Lost Domain’’, along with two stories not here, ‘‘Echo’’ and ‘‘Calypso in Berlin’’, but they stand up well on their own.

The quirky interview with Bisson is less con­cerned with standard author-profile boilerplate than with such matters as where Hand chooses to live, how her hardboiled character Cass Neary dresses, bad movies about artists, and (one of Bis­son’s favorite questions) her car. The two pieces on Disch and Sheldon – both authors who seemed to grapple with their cultural identities, Sheldon as herself and James Tiptree, Jr.; Disch as a poet, New Wave pioneer, and multigenre novelist – offer career overviews leavened by Hand’s particular insights into their preoccupations with death and suicide, quoting Sheldon telling Le Guin, ‘‘I am trying to become nothing.’’ It’s a chilling thought, but oddly in keeping with an idea barely below the surface of this whole collection – that artists even­tually disappear into their art, which eventually is all we really know of them, whether in Santorini or in the ruins of a massive wildfire out west.

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 Eric Flint & Mike Resnick

The Gods of Sagittarius, by Eric Flint & Mike Resnick (Baen 978-1-4767-8212-6, $25, 336pp, hardcover) May 2017

In my recent review of Gordon Dickson’s Best of, I commented that classic one-on-one author collaborations, once a very popular mode of writing in our genre, seemed on the decline. I should have specified that a last flourishing redoubt of such popular partnerships is Baen Books. Given that they are perceived as “Old School,” this anomaly makes perfect sense. In any case, today we have two well-regarded authors with large fan bases coming together for a novel that might be the start of a long run. Let’s see how they kick things off.

The first thing to mention is the type of SF novel this is. I’m not sure the category even has a name, though I’ve cited its existence before now. Here is the defining quality of the sub-genre: it intelligently deploys all the standard apparatus and furniture of SF–robots, rockets, and rayguns–either in a space opera or in a more limited setting, but without being sincerely and rigorously extrapolative. At the same time, the story is not merely a “Bat Durston” tale–a western or other genre in SF drag–because the scientific/technological elements are indeed integral to the tale. It’s just that they are not “realistically” deployed or accounted-for in the manner of hardcore speculative futurism.

The Gods of Sagittarius is situated “thousands of years” in the future, when aliens abound, and interstellar travel among many human-settled worlds is taken for granted. Yet both the culture of this era and much of its gadgetry do not in any way flow from millennia of probable change and advancement and estrangement. The human somatype is unaltered; smart-aleck AIs would be familiar to Tony Stark; and academia, the media and capitalism are utterly recognizable presences. So we are not in Stross or Rajaniemi or even Kim Stanley Robinson 2140 territory.

But as I’ve also said before, this kind of SF does not perturb me or seem to me unworthy of attention. It’s a kind of stylized kabuki drama or commedia dell’arte: the forms are hardwired, and what matters is how the writer fills them differently.

So with that long preamble behind us, let me affirm that Flint and Resnick deliver an outstanding, madcap, goofball adventure, with plenty of surprises and not a dull moment. If you want some points of comparison, I would adduce Ron Goulart, Keith Laumer, James Schmitz and–a fellow who has unfortunately dropped off the publishing map–that master of surreal japes, Philip Palmer.

Our authors begin with two threads of narrative which, as such setups always do, converge into a single stream. We are first introduced to some humans: the bodyguard-for-hire Russ Talbot, and his patron of the moment, the intellectual giant (but practical klutz) Lord Rupert Shenoy. Shenoy’s latest fixation is the planet Cthulhu, a prison world where a most unsettling tragedy has taken place. Shenoy believes that the incident points towards the survival of the Old Ones, a precursor race deemed extinct. So off he and Tabor fly (along with a fellow academic named Basil). That’s the first three chapters.

The next eight chapters acquaint us intimately with a member of the alien race dubbed the Knack. And here’s where Flint and Resnick amp up the comedic weirdness. We immediately meet Occo, whose description, deliberately withheld until chapters later, is typical of the ambiance: I’m thinking Larry Niven’s Puppeteers through a kaleidoscope.

As they headed toward the passageway, an impressive-looking alien emerged from it. The creature was about six feet tall, four-legged, with its torso rising straight up from the middle of the legs. Unlike a terrestrial quadruped, from the waist-equivalent down it seemed to have no clear directional orientation—much the way a tripod or stool might be said to face in any direction. Its upper torso and head, on the other hand, had a clear front-and-back orientation. There were only two arms and two eyes.

And two mouths, which was a little creepy. One above the other. The lower mouth was for ingesting food, for which purpose Tabor knew it had an impressive set of quasi-teeth, although they weren’t currently visible. The much smaller upper mouth was only used for breathing and speaking. The alien had no nose or nostrils. Its wide-jawed equivalent of a face was dominated by two deeply-set, large, mustard-colored eyes.

Its legs and abdomen were clothed in what resembled Samurai-style armor; linked iron plates and lacquered leather, which was actually some sort of artificial—and much lighter—protective gear. The torso was covered only by a brightly-colored vest crisscrossed by several shoulder belts, one of which held some sort of weapon or tool in a holster.

Occo, a shaman conversant with technology as well, is the last of her clan, and is determined to seek out the perpetrators of the genocide. So “she” and her conjured-up “familiar,” Bresk, set out for some armaments to help. This involves a raid on The Repository, a vault of Old Ones artifacts. There, Occo comes into possession of the Warlock Variation Drive, a sentient, possibly insane teleportation unit that looks like a mauve cruciform vegetable (I’m recalling a similar dubious helper, the Prize in Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles), and the Skerkud Teleplaser, a smart weapon the form of a soup tureen. Before you can say “Douglas Adams,” Occo & Company are also present on Cthulhu. From there, the allied humans and the Knack crew will be battling a dizzying array of exotic rivals for the treasures of the Old Ones, as well fending off as the not-quite-extinct Old Ones themselves. The book ends in a temporary jubilant victory. However, the mission of the motley band is not over, as the Warlock Variation Drive explains: “[You] took it upon yourselves to use the ancient powers…. [And] when you wake up one the rest start stirring too. The Old Ones, the Fiends, the Hoar Ghosts, the Unfriendlies, the Estrangers—even They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!”

A couple of final points about what is essentially a Marx Brothers romp in space. The dialogue-heavy text is well-suited to the comedic intentions, giving everyone lots of character-revelatory exposition, along the lines of snark and misunderstanding and insult. Trying to discern which parts Flint wrote and which parts Resnick wrote is futile, as the prose is well blended. And any book which can insert a gratuitous joke about Lem’s Solaris into the final chapter is one that has equal amounts of wit to accompany its Carrollian slapstick.

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 Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit 978-0316262347, $28.00, 640pp, hc) March 2017.

It’s been just a decade since Kim Stanley Robinson published Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume in his Science in the Capital trilogy (since updated in the one-volume version Green Earth), and during that time SF’s common approach to global warming seems to have shifted from cautionary tales to a general acceptance of drowned or disappeared coastal cities as a default consensus future. This could represent a larger shift in attitude than it at first seems. Whereas earlier default futures involved such things as moon colonies or sophisticated AIs, the tone was generally aspirational; even when global disaster back on Earth counter­pointed the growth of space colonies (as in Robinson’s own Mars trilogy or 2312 – or, for that matter, going all the way back to Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles), there was always a viable path to a future somewhere else. Not that Robinson’s new novel New York 2140 lacks such a path, or lacks aspirational characters, but the aspirations no longer involve evading disaster so much as climbing up from the muck, of finding a way to have a nice breakfast in the ruins.

There’s plenty of actual muck in New York 2140. Two of Robinson’s most engaging char­acters, the orphans Stefan and Roberto, are what an earlier generation would have called mudlarks, scrounging a living by diving in the hazardous canals that have replaced the streets of an inundated lower Manhattan. Another character, Vlade, is a building engineer at the old Met Life tower on Madison Square – the central focus of the action – who spends a fair amount of his time trying to shore up the now-submerged parts of the building and whose ex-wife Idelba operates a dredging barge for salvage opera­tions. Yet another figure, Mr. Hexter, is an old book and map collector living in a condemned building constantly in danger of simply sinking into the muck. As such colorful and eccentric characters might suggest, a good portion of New York 2140 has an oddly Dickensian feel to it, despite such futuristic trappings as 300-story ‘‘superscrapers’’ and personal airships piloted by AIs.

In fact, in contrast to the Dos Passos expan­siveness of 2312 and despite its panoramic title, New York 2140 is a comparatively intimate tale of a handful of representative characters whose paths cross in various ways in a New York defiantly rebuilding after two separate ‘‘pulses’’ have left sea levels something like 50 feet higher than they are now. There are still quite a few stylistic fillips: pithy interchap­ter quotations on New York life, background information filled in by a wise-ass unnamed narra­tor simply called ‘‘the citizen,’’ and a playful delight in allusive coinages like ‘‘pynchonpoetry,’’ ‘‘calvinocity,’’ ‘‘pikettied,’’ ‘‘am­phibiguity,’’ and ‘‘gehryglory.’’ But the novel is driven by that fascinating cast, including (in addition to those already mentioned) an imposing African-American police inspector with the oddly Nordic name Gen Octaviasdottir (which sounds like it could be a tribute to a great SF writer); an immigrant and refugee worker named Charlotte Armstrong (another literary name, if likely a coincidence); a self-satisfied financial consultant named Franklin Garr, who’s figured out how to make a fortune speculating on ‘‘intertidal’’ real estate (and who is the only first-person narrator other than the unnamed ‘‘citizen’’); an ecology worker and Internet celebrity named Amelia Black, who is using her personal airship Assisted Migration to try to relocate surviving polar bears to Antarctica (and who provides the novel’s most surreally comic moment when the bears get loose in the airship); and two freelance coders nicknamed Mutt and Jeff (yet another literary allusion of sorts), who find themselves kidnapped and imprisoned after one of them releases a series of codes designed, basically, to correct and rationalize the whole capitalist financial system. All are linked in some way to the Met Life tower, a particularly iconic choice of setting since its original design was meant to reflect the campanile in Venice, and since it now serves as a refuge in the ‘‘SuperVenice’’ that New York has become.

The plot initially develops along four lines: the disappearance of Mutt and Jeff, who had been camping in a pre-fab ‘‘hotello’’ on a terrace of the Met Life tower, a mysteriously generous of­fer from an anonymous source to buy the entire building, Stefan and Roberto’s efforts to uncover a fortune in gold coins from a real-life 18th-century British shipwreck whose location had been determined by Mr. Hexter’s indefatigable map research, and Amelia’s efforts to rescue the polar bears (though this is a distinctly second­ary narrative line barely related to New York). As these stories begin to converge, a storm of historic proportions – something of a Robinson specialty by now, recalling the superstorms that bookended Forty Signs of Rain – descends on New York, ironically setting the stage for a cli­max which reflects Robinson’s characteristically cautious optimism – although another climax of sorts tries to resolve some of the more complex issues of capitalism, economics, and public policy that have shaped the ‘‘citizen’s’’ chapters, as well as the debates between the financier Franklin and the social worker Charlotte (who eventually decides to enter politics). In fact, the novel at times becomes such a tribute to the resilience and ingenuity of New Yorkers that the drowned Manhattan seems more intriguing than frightening, and a pretty attractive place to explore; as our anonymous citizen says at one point, ‘‘Possibly New York had never yet been this interesting, which is saying a lot, even dis­counting all the bullshit.’’ Likewise, there have been more than a few environmental catastrophe tales set in a future New York, but possibly none of them have been this interesting.

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


© 2012-2015 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress, modified from a theme design by Lorem Ipsum