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The Fogeys of July: A Review of Independence Day: Resurgence

by Gary Westfahl

Since I was recently complimented at a conference for writing “honest” film reviews, I feel obliged to begin this one by conveying my honest reaction to Independence Day: Resurgence: although I was bored and appalled by the original Independence Day (1996), and utterly baffled by its tremendous popularity, I somehow found its belated sequel to be surprisingly engaging, even moving, despite some obvious issues in its logic and plausibility. Perhaps this indicates that I am finally becoming senile, unable to distinguish between worthwhile entertainment and reprehensible trash; perhaps this is a sign of the times, so that a film modeled on a film that stood out in 1996 for its risible inanity and clumsy manipulativeness now seems, amidst scores of similar films, merely typical, or even a bit superior to its lamentable competitors. Perhaps, though, it is simply a better film than its precursor, the theory that merits some extended exploration.

Before any discussion of how this film differs from its precursor, though, one should begin by acknowledging its key similarities. Twenty years after their first invasion, the evil aliens have launched another assault on planet Earth, arriving in ships that are “bigger than the last one” (a point made at least twice). Though we see more of them, and learn more about their culture, the aliens remain implacable enemies, determined to annihilate humanity, with the ultimate goal of draining the Earth’s molten core to obtain needed energy and render the planet uninhabitable. Despite their amazingly advanced technology, it is again determined that they have one key weakness, and by means of a desperate maneuver that scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) accurately describes as a “Hail Mary,” and the heroic efforts of several disparate characters, the human race is ultimately able to prevail. All of this, of course, mostly represents what everybody in the audience already knows before the film starts.

Still, the first film’s battle against the aliens was largely an all-American affair, and there were inept attempts to appeal to the audience’s patriotic fervor by absurdly likening resistance to the aliens to the United States’ struggle for independence, as commemorated by the titular holiday. Yet this film has a distinctly international spirit: new President Lanford (Sela Ward) emphasizes in a speech that the invasion brought the nations of the world together, resulting in twenty years without any significant conflicts – humanity “rose from the ashes as one people, one world”; former president Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) similarly observes that the world is “unified like never before,” a condition that is “sacred” and thus worth preserving; a team of space pilots from different nations is identified as the International Legacy Squadron; before deciding upon one attack, President Lanford first consults with a “Security Council” that includes the leaders of France, Britain, and Russia; Levinson travels to central Africa as part of a United Nations Research Mission; and in a radio message, General Adams (Wiliam Fichtner) explicitly addresses all the world’s people, stating that “no matter our differences, we are all one people.” The cast also has an international flavor: a journalist notes that China made especially important contributions to developments in space, and two major characters are Chinese – pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy) and her uncle Jiang (Chin Han), commander of the moon base; they even speak a few lines of Chinese. And although one might dismiss this as pandering to an increasingly valued international market, it is less easy to attribute cynical motives to the prominent roles played by a courageous African warlord, Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), and a French psychiatrist, Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who studies individuals who have interacted with aliens. The trend toward cross-cultural cooperation may even extend to the stars; for while the attacking aliens are irredeemably evil, so “there can be no peace” with them as Lanford notes, there are growing intimations of another, more benign alien race that might become humanity’s allies.

Second, Independence Day seemed downright silly in imagining that the human science of 1996 could somehow overcome the vastly superior technology of the alien invaders; but in this film, humanity has employed knowledge garnered from the aliens to forge a viable space program, with bases on the Moon and a Saturnian moon, fast spaceships powered by “fusion drives,” and formidable new weapons like “cold fusion bombs.” All of this makes a possible victory over the aliens seem a little more believable, and it provides the film with an unusually distinctive setting, an alternate world of 2016 wherein an alien invasion has triggered tremendous advances in some areas but not in others. So, one sees a fusion-powered “space tug” landing next to gasoline-fueled cars and school buses that look exactly like the ones now on the roads.

Third, even though the film industry increasingly strives to appeal to the young, Independence Day: Resurgence is an extended celebration of old people – which might explain why this old reviewer was unexpectedly fond of it. One might attribute this to the fact that director Roland Emmerich and his returning collaborator, writer Dean Devlin, manifestly loved their earlier film and were determined to reference it as much as possible by bringing back, or at least mentioning, every single one of its major characters, all of them now senior citizens. Only two surviving characters do not reappear: Captain Steven Hiller (since Will Smith declined to participate), and Levinson’s ex-wife Constance Spano (who would have complicated Levinson’s budding romance with Marceaux). But Levinson, ex-president Whitmore, Levinson’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch), Hiller’s wife Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox), General Grey (Robert Loggia), eccentric scientist Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), and his friend Dr. Isaacs (John Storey) all reappear, while characters who could not return are remembered in other ways – Hiller in both a portrait and a photograph, and Whitmore’s deceased wife in the name of the Marilyn Whitmore Hospital where a comatose Okun has been residing.

However, whenever there is a lengthy interval between the production of a film and its sequel, the typical tendency is to relegate the elderly returning characters to minor roles and focus most of the attention on new, younger protagonists; thus, it is not surprising to learn that Dubrow is quickly written out of the film and Grey is only briefly observed, sitting in a wheelchair and saluting the current and former presidents. Yet Emmerich makes Goldblum’s Levinson the true star of his sequel, even though Liam Hemsworth (playing pilot Jake Morrison) officially gets top billing; tellingly, while both men play a role in humanity’s inevitable victory, it is Levinson, not Morrison, who is told, “Well done!” Furthermore, Whitmore, Julius Levinson, Okun, and Storey are just as prominent, or even more prominent, than they were in the first film. And while Goldblum, long one of my favorite actors, is excellent as always, the other returning actors, who essentially phoned in their parts in the first film, provide stronger performances here, as if recognizing that it might represent their last chance to be in the limelight. And this might serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood executives: for if a director ever suggested out of the blue that she wanted to make a major film starring Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, and Brent Spiner, she would be laughed at derisively: you can’t make a successful film with those decrepit has-beens – you need hot young talent! Yet this film works very well with its fogeys at the forefront, and Goldblum, Pullman, Hirsch, and Spiner are only a few of the many aging, out-of-work actors who might shine again if given the opportunity.

Yet it is not only their visibility, but their importance to the plot, that makes this film’s older performers so distinctive; for they represent the film’s brain trust. Levinson and Okun in particular are the ones who figure things out and enable humanity to mount a successful defense, and Whitmore deduces one key fact about the aliens before anyone else. (A subtle but telling sign of his intelligence: when we first see him, he is reading a history of the Luftwaffe; in other words, he is studying the aerial tactics of a defeated foe who made a stunning counterattack, precisely what he is anticipating.) Even Julius Levinson, who was mainly an irritant in the first film, emerges as an insightful hero in assisting some children and recognizing that taking over an abandoned school bus represented their best way to reach safety. And the film did not have to entirely rely upon its geezers to do all the thinking: responding to the obvious need for fresh new characters, the screenwriters might have provided Levinson and Okun with bright young assistants to help with their research and perhaps contribute a few ideas. Instead, the only new scientist is the forty-something Marceaux, while the film’s younger characters – Morrison, his friend Charlie (Travis Tope), Hiller’s son Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), Lao, and Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) – are merely pilots, whose basic role is to do whatever the geezers tell them to do (though Patricia is first working as a presidential speechwriter before she returns to the cockpit). To illustrate their insignificance, one could easily edit all of them out of the film and create an entertaining, 70-minute film starring Goldblum, Pullman, and Spiner; but it is impossible to imagine a film without those elderly characters.

In sum, I may have especially appreciated this film because it atypically allowed its older performers to dominate the proceedings; but in another respect, Independence Day: Resurgence is an all-too-typical Hollywood film in insisting upon this bedrock principle: people are inspired to be heroic only by the perils of their friends and relatives. The film gets off to a slow start primarily because it must painstakingly establish the emotional relationships between characters that will later explain their actions; the pilots at times seem more interested in saving each other’s lives than in killing aliens; to motivate a group of people to attack the aliens, one character announces, “we all lost someone we love – so let’s do it for them! Make them pay!”; Umbutu says to himself that he is driven to kill aliens as a way to avenge his deceased brother; Julius Levinson seemingly grows attached to some orphaned children because they represent the longed-for grandchildren that his son David never provided; and to explain to his daughter why he is embarking upon a suicide mission, Whitmore tells her, “I’m not saving the world, I’m saving you.” One incident in particular seems an illustration of these characters’ misguided priorities: though undoubtedly needed elsewhere, Dylan at one point ignores his orders and flies off to a hospital – to rescue his mother.

In the real world, however, society depends upon soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who are willing to work long hours and risk their lives to benefit complete strangers; one reason they are so effusively praised is the genuine selflessness of their actions. We would live in a sad, dysfunctional world if soldiers only fought to save their friends and relatives, police officers only investigated crimes that affected their friends and relatives, and firefighters only put out fires that were threatening the homes of their friends and relatives. Yet screenplays must always be carefully written to provide characters with some intensely personal motive for everything they do, even when their actions would never be sanctioned under ordinary circumstances. Consider this: suppose a huge wildfire is raging, threatening to destroy an entire community, and every firefighter is urgently needed to keep it under control; yet one firefighter has abandoned his post in order to rush home and make sure that his mommy is okay. That firefighter would be universally condemned; yet in this film, when Dylan Hiller does the same thing, we are supposed to admire him.

Indeed, Goldblum’s Levinson is so appealing, in large part, because he is the one character in the film who seems entirely focused on what he should be focused on, namely, saving the entire human race, not saving someone who is near and dear to him. At no time in the film does he exclaim, “Oh my gosh! Where’s my dad? I gotta go save my dad!”; he finally encounters his father solely as a result of the most improbable of the film’s many improbable coincidences. In sharp contrast, the film’s other protagonist, Hemsworth’s Morrison, proves harder to like because, throughout an invasion that may exterminate humanity, he is primarily worried about protecting his best buddy Charlie, ensuring the safety of his fiancée Patricia, and rebuilding a relationship with his estranged former friend Dylan.

Another reason to be unenthusiastic about this film is its aforementioned “logic and plausibility.” The credits conspicuously fail to include a “Science Advisor,” and while one Nick Herman is listed as a “Researcher,” connected to the Art Department, it remains unclear precisely what he was researching, or why he was qualified to conduct this research. Certainly, his work did not involve space travel: as in the Star Wars films, characters routinely board spaceships without a protective spacesuit in sight – they are only observed when Levinson and Marceaux are walking on the lunar surface; space travelers never experience zero gravity; and no effort is made to depict the Moon’s lower gravity. (If Dylan had actually punched Morrison on the Moon, he would have been flung across the room instead of falling to the floor.) The film also completely ignores the economics of space, as it seems extremely unlikely that the governments of Earth could have afforded to build all of these spaceships, satellites, and planetary bases while simultaneously funding the complete reconstruction of the innumerable buildings and structures destroyed during the first invasion, a project apparently completed in twenty years.

More serious questions arise regarding the physiology and behavior of the aliens. First, since everybody hates insects, and everybody routinely kills unwanted insects, it makes sense for filmmakers to fashion their hostile aliens to resemble insects (as in the Starship Troopers films and Edge of Tomorrow [2014 – review here]). Further, since insects like ants and bees entirely rely upon a single queen, that would provide insect-like aliens with a convenient vulnerability, which this film ruthlessly exploits. Yet it seems improbable that an advanced technological civilization could evolve within, and retain, such a social structure, and if it did, its queens would surely be intelligent enough to recognize this as a potential problem and equip all of their invasion forces with two queens – or five queens. It is also a remarkable coincidence that these outré creatures are able to thrive in the gravity and atmosphere of Earth, as their energetic hostilities demonstrate. As for the notion of obtaining energy by drilling into large inhabited planets and extracting their molten cores: surely, a truly advanced culture could find an easier and more efficient way to get all the energy they need, especially since this one has already mastered controlled fusion, fueled by the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen.

A final complaint: though they waited a respectable twenty years before producing a sequel to the first Independence Day, it is disheartening to hear that Emmerich and Devlin are already working on Independence Day 3; independent verification of this fact is hardly necessary when a film concludes by explicitly whetting the audience’s appetite for an even bigger and better battle royal: “we are going to kick some serious alien ass!” Yet such plans seem premature when it is by no means assured that the second film will equal the success of its predecessor. (After all, I hated the first film, but everybody else liked it; perhaps, because I liked the second film, everybody else will hate it.) Further, in contrast to the well-thought-out universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, the underpinnings of this franchise seem far too shaky to sustain an extended series of films. If Emmerich is actually interested in venturing beyond his comfort zone (as suggested by the uncharacteristic Stonewall [2014]), I would suggest, as an alternative, making a sequel to another science fiction starring Jeff Goldblum, the surprisingly entertaining Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), with Goldblum appearing as the older and wiser mentor to a new generation of amorous alien teenagers. Such alien visitors, arguably, are just as plausible as the relentless horrors of the Independence Day films, and more charming as well.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), 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, now available from Wildside Press.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Speegle, Powers, Silverberg, Gold & Gold

A Haunting in Germany & Other Stories, by Darren Speegle (PS Publishing 978-1-848639-65-2, $30, 258pp) February 2016

Down and Out in Purgatory, by Tim Powers (Subterranean 978-1-59606-781-3, $30, 120pp) June 2016

Regan’s Planet & Someone to Watch Over Me, by Robert Silverberg, H.L. Gold & Floyd C. Gold(Armchair Fiction 978-1-61287-289-6, $12.95, 232pp) January 2016

PS Publishing and Subterranean Press are two firms that help constitute the gold standard for small independent publishers. They bring forth new titles by top-of-the-line writers, always a core mission for such genre-loving enterprises who are intent on scooping up the treasures that the Big Five houses irrationally disdain. Right behind them and coming up fast in importance is Armchair Fiction, with a backlist of a few hundred volumes of fascinating reprints. Reprinting forgotten material is the second grand imperative of the small presses, equally as valuable as the mission of debuting new books, although maybe not quite so glamorous.

Here, almost chosen at random, so rich are the offerings, we take a gander at one representative new title from each publisher.

* * *

Darren Speegle has accumulated an impressive catalogue of short fiction, dating—according to ISFDB—from 2001’s “Porta Nigra.” Due to his excellent writing, he should be as well-known as other contemporary Weirdists, all those familiar Stoker and Jackson nominees, but I have a sense he is an under-surveyed treasure. Perhaps his new collection, exhibiting a wide variety of tales, will alleviate that condition.

“Vibing for Validity in Vegas” features a contemporary setting where neon and avarice are contrasted with eternal passions. Our protagonist, Gary, in newly wealthy and is sampling a splurge of hedonism before hopefully embarking on a more stable reboot of his life. He meets a beautiful bar girl named Nikki, and what ensues is not any noir havoc or carnal chaos but rather a kind of teasing Socratic dialogue about the nature of freedom and responsibility. The tale is refreshing for its lack of clichéd histrionics.

The next tale, “Fallen Cathedrals,” some fifty pages long, is so different as to induce both psychic whiplash and an admiration for Speegle’s range. Opening mercilessly with no concession to backstory, it reveals a man and his daughter waking up from cryo-sleep on a spaceship. A nonhuman guide informs them they have arrived at their destination: a meeting with God on an alien world. The rest of this tale fills in the context and provides a David-Lindsay-style planetary odyssey that lives up to the terms of such an impossible meeting. The gravitas of the tale is mediated by the homely, intimate details of the parent-child relationship. Think James Tiptree by way of Jeff VanderMeer.

Two tales set in the expertly conjured up ambiance of Alaska follow. “Windows of Alaska,” with its magisterial and meditative opening fugue, shows us the startling encounter on mysterious Raven Island between an older man and a young woman of uncertain reality. “The Symphony of the Normal” starts small, with newcomers arriving at a rental wilderness cabin where the former tenant proves to have been quite an enigmatic fellow. They slowly discover the true astonishing magnitude of his exploits.

The title story opens with a horrible crime in the ancient Roman Empire that reverberates eerily down to the present. And finally we return to the exploits of Gary from Vegas, as he gets implicated in a murder in “Ibizia Fantástico,” and demonstrates that he is not much further along his path to revival.

Speegle’s main theme is the scary burdens of self-knowledge, the desperate measures we take to avoid such terrible revelations. Additionally, he shows us that this failure to confront our own demons poisons our relationships with others, preventing true intimacy. His tales unfold with slow impactfulness and sober language, as he is not given to wild crescendos, but this tactic, along with the vivid, somewhat exotic settings, make such horrors of the soul all the more numbingly explosive.

* * *

Down and Out in Purgatory is Tim Powers’s first true descent, I think, into the bardo, the kind of afterlife fable exemplified by such bold masterpieces as Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, and Will Self’s How the Dead Live. Powers has been steadily building up a physics or natural science of ghosts in his many variegated yet resonant books. Now he embarks on an actual cosmology of posthumousness. What Niven & Pournelle aimed for at novel length in Inferno is surpassed here at a fraction of the length.

Our protagonist, Holbrook, is an obsessed man. For many years he has been tracking down an ex-college-classmate named Atwater, who married, then murdered, their mutual coed sweetheart, Shasta. (Have I ever mentioned in any review yet how allied to the works of Thomas Pynchon the stories of Powers are?) He finds Atwater at last—already dead of natural causes in a relatively pleasant yet undeserved demise. Holbrook’s next step could be to shrug and move one. But such is the man’s mania that he resolves otherwise. Learning that Purgatory is real, and that Atwater’s soul resides there, he will kill himself and track down his enemy in the afterlife, there to expunge his incorporeal essence from the universe entirely.

And this all in the book’s first quarter. The rest of the odyssey indeed finds Holbrook on a bizarre, surreal quest in the afterlife, which Powers conjures up with insane visionary inspiration. Despite being the tale of dead souls, Holbrook’s emotionally powerful quest reveals more about the nature of love and duty among the living than many a mimetic novel. There are plot twists galore, and incidental characters you will never forget, including Hubcap Pete, whose peregrinations keep Purgatory spinning. By the time you get to the scene where the chambers of a revolver are loaded with jellybeans—“four of them with tiny firing pin dents”—your mind will be well and truly blown.

* * *

As is famously known, the career of Robert Silverberg divides into at least two phases. The massive outpouring of journeyman work, always competent and entertaining, but not necessarily inspired; and then the masterful genius phase, with one classic after another pouring forth. Regan’s Planet (1964) dates from the first part of that career, but at the transitional interface or border. It shows many of the later-period themes and approaches with exciting flashes of the mature Silverberg. Moreover, it remains cannily prophetic and is a helluva read on the level of pure entertainment.

In the year 1990, hopeful monster Claude Regan, ruthless millionaire businessman, is tasked by the government with launching the 1992 World’s Fair, highly vital to commercial and diplomatic interests as a token of how great the country is doing, five hundred years after Columbus’s voyage. Regan shoulders the job and in an orgy of Machiavellianism blows away all obstacles and foes. His initial conception—to build a giant pleasure satellite as the venue—shapes the whole narrative. But the key issue here is the spiritual and physical payment that Regan’s ambition takes from him. At the end of the book he has experienced one of those classic Silverberg epiphanies—think of something like Downward to the Earth—and is a reformed soul—maybe!

Regan’s resemblance to assorted egomaniacal dotcom titans is part of the prophetical element, as is much of the realpolitik stuff. China as frenemy? Sure, it’s all here. As Silverberg tells us in his illuminating new introduction, “I did get some things right, and told a pretty lively story, besides.” What more could you ask?

The conceit of Armchair Fiction is that they are making modern Ace Doubles, and so this book comes with two covers (though not printed dos-a-dos) and another story, Someone to Watch Over Me. The second offering is a collaboration between famed Galaxy editor H. L. Gold and his brother Floyd, and is a rarity that has hardly ever been reprinted. (Armchair gives us the original illos as well.) It is a gonzo tale, part Robert Sheckley, part Leigh Brackett, part Harry Stephen Keeler, which shows us how the field has changed—in my estimation, for the worse, as the ratio of this type of bonkers SF to the earnest, boring, moralizing kind has altered. Our hero, an accidental murderer obsessed with a whore he only slept with once, has violated all interstellar laws to consort with the aliens who live in hyperspace and appear there as horrid monsters, as do the humans when in that realm. Growing rich from the illicit trade, he returns to marry his commercial inamorata. But his marriage hits a bump when the abominable queen of hyperspace reveals other plans.

About the only folks working anything like this enjoyably wacked-out vein today are Philip Palmer, Rudy Rucker, Tom Holt, and Richard Kadrey. So many others seem more intent on virtue-signalling. But I maintain that the almost Jungian interplay of surreal elements in the Gold story will do more to enlighten the reader about human dimensions of the soul and mind and heart than all the weepy self-flagellation out there.

Thanks to Armchair for unearthing such treasures.

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.

Russell Letson reviews C.J. Cherryh

Visitor, C.J. Cherryh (DAW 978-0-7564-0910-4, $26.00, 376pp, hc) April 2016. Cover by Todd Lockwood.

Visitor is the 17th entry in C.J. Cherryh’s long-running (since 1994) Foreigner Universe series and the middle volume of its sixth sub-trilogy. That means, right up front, that this is not the place to start with these novels, though one might not need to back up all the way to the first book to get ori­ented. The crucial elements of Visitor are rooted in events in the fifth volume, Explorer (2002), during which the precariously balanced alliance of lost humans and their host species, the atevi, encoun­ter a third spacegoing species, the maybe-warlike kyo, and establish a fragile and partial détente, with a promise of a follow-up meeting in the atevi home system. That story-line was suspended by nine novels’ worth of civil war, restoration, and aftermath (volumes 7-9); post-war intrigues and cleanup (volumes 10-12); and dynastic-familial matters in the atevi ruling household (volumes 13-15). Finally, in last year’s Tracker (reviewed in April 2015), that long-delayed other shoe dropped, as an inbound kyo starship signals that it is arriving and that the long-awaited, one-hopes-diplomatic mission is on its way.

This is not the place for a full-fledged orienta­tion lecture on how the human colonists on the lost starship Phoenix managed to make a new home and forge a delicate alliance with the atevi, a species that is physically humanlike but psychologically very different – better to Google up some background or (better yet) pick up one of the earlier sub-trilogies and dive in. For those who are up to date, or who need a nudge to re-enter this world, here are some teasers, carefully crafted to avoid spoilers. The rest of you can eavesdrop before going in search of the rest of the books.

Visitor is necessarily much occupied with back­ward looks at events whose outcomes are finally showing up as live crises, and the first half of the book is dominated by a review and elaboration of the problems and puzzles introduced back in Explorer. Bren Cameron, originally the ‘‘paidhi,’’ the sole official translator-diplomat-bureaucrat tasked with keeping humans and their atevi hosts from disastrous misunderstandings, is now also the atevi government’s primary authority in space, ‘‘lord of the heavens.’’ This at first meant authority over the human-built, jointly operated space station, but the job has come to include plenipotentiary power to deal with the mysterious and powerful kyo. Cameron also has to deal with three human factions: the 200-year-old human settlement on the ‘‘earth of the atevi’’ (for whom he is still an official); the crew and command hierarchy of the Phoenix; and a crowd of refugees from Reunion, a second, remote human station that was attacked and then left alone by the kyo.

Cameron puzzles over the behavior of present and former Phoenix captains, station administra­tors, and the kyo, who may have been observing human and atevi activities for longer than anyone thought. On the human side, critical information has been lost, destroyed, or concealed. Most crucially, with whom are the kyo at war? What else lurks out among the stars where the atevi have not gone? Such questions give Bren literal nightmares – and when he does get some answers, the stakes are raised very high indeed.

Once Cameron and the kyo get down to brass tacks, the book is absolutely riveting, even as it replays many of the situations and tensions from the series’ earliest volumes, when Cameron was feeling his way through the darkened rooms and passages of human-atevi worldviews and instinct-sets. And along the way, even before those fraught cross-species negotiations begin, the book offers subsidiary currents and small flashes of illumination that light up new corners of this world. There is, for example, a memory of Cameron’s first meeting with the young atevi aiji (overlord) Tabini and the roots of his approach to the job of paidhi, in the context of current anxieties about dealing with the kyo. Or the moment when the young atevi heir Cajeiri notices that one of his human associates is willing to abandon all her belongings and start afresh without a backward look, even in an alien environment, while he knows the provenance and history of ‘‘every piece of furniture, every carpet, every ornament in his own suite at home… [which] had been owned… by people a hundred years ago.’’ Cajeiri’s great-grandmother, the formidable dowa­ger Ilisidi, provides some surprising (for the people inside the story) decisions and declarations that suggest a degree of sophistication and cross-species insight even greater than one has come to expect from her. These recognitions and insights and even the bad dreams feed into a resolution that feels quite solid – except for that inconvenient fact that this is the middle of a triad, and atevi numerology prob­ably has something to say about the nature of 17.

It has been especially interesting and illuminating to read this Foreigner volume next to Arnason’s hwarhath stories. Both writers address matters of ‘‘inherent’’ components of social behavior, the neurological-wiring side of ‘‘nature.’’ But where Arnason builds her exploration of nature and nurture from the family and sexuality upward and outward, Cherryh builds our understanding of the atevi from the dynastic and large-scale-social downward toward the personal. (We still don’t know exactly what goes on between Cameron and his bodyguard/lover Jago, let alone how her emotional attachment maps onto his.) And while living inside Bren Cameron’s head is often a cerebral experience where the strongest emotion is a kind of perfection­ist anxiety, this volume offers surprisingly moving moments. Even hinting at where they occur would spoil some of the pleasures of Visitor, which pays off in a most satisfactory manner.

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

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Year’s Best Weird Fiction

Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Kathe Koja & Mi­chael Kelly, eds. (Undertow Publications 978-0-9938951-1-1, $18.99, 328pp, tp) October 2015. [Order from Undertow Publications .]

In her introduction to Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume Two, Kathe Koja, co-editor for this year’s edition, refers to the weird as that ‘‘sense of the strange’’ which derives from the understanding that there is more to our world than what our other five senses can convey. That’s a broad enough descrip­tion to define the sensibility that runs through the nineteen eclectic stories she and Michael Kelly have reprinted in this volume. Although the authors of some of the stories selected also are represented in the other year’s-best compilations of stories from 2015, a number of the stories are neither dark nor horrific enough to have made the cut for the other titles.

Several of Koja’s selections are steeped in the classic fairy and folktale tradition, or verge upon contemporary urban legends and cryptozoology. Siobhan Carroll’s ‘‘Wendigo Nights’’ begins ‘‘Late­ly I’ve been thinking about eating my children,’’ a line so startling in its implications that it virtually defies the reader not read any further. As its title suggests, the story is concerned with the cannibal spirit of Native American lore, one whose malig­nant influence is associated with a strange canister unearthed by a snowbound Arctic research team. The narrative is presented as a series of journal entries, ordered out of sequence so that they seesaw back and forth between days of normal operations and days of deathly cabin fever, the fulcrum be­ing that moment when everything went suddenly, horribly wrong.

Carmen Maria Machado is represented by two stories, including ‘‘The Husband Stitch’’, a beauti­fully told story narrated by a woman who, as she grows from youth to maturity, points out the many campfire tales and urban legends that are based on ordinary life experience. For the duration of the story she conspicuously wears a pendant on a ribbon necklace, and anyone who is familiar with Washington Irving’s ‘‘The Adventure of the German Student’’ – itself based on a European folk legend – will know how the story is going to end. The counterpoint to Machado’s poignant tale is Nick Mamatas’s ‘‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’’, a wonderfully snarky account of how a Massachusetts town in need of tourist commerce milks a concocted urban legend perhaps a little too aggressively. Mythical creatures abound in Julio Cortazar’s ‘‘Headache’’ (translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco), about a beaked mammal known as the mancuspia, and the altered sensibilities experienced by those who care for and feed them, and in Rich Larson’s ‘‘The Air We Breathe in Stormy, Stormy’’, about a deep-sea oil worker who falls in love with a semi-amphibious woman who lives beneath the rig. Isabel Yap, in ‘‘A Cup of Salt Tears’’, relates the amorous relationship that develops between a woman whose husband is dying of cancer and a kappa, or carnivorous water sprite of Japanese legend, who offers her a strange sort of succor. Sunny Morain’s ‘‘So Sharp the Blood Must Flow’’ is a sequel to Andersen’s ‘‘The Little Mermaid’’, written in the form of a revenge fantasy that will appeal to any reader who feels (as all readers surely do) that the title character of that story got a bum steer, given all of the sacrifices she made for love.

A variety of different voices and approaches distinguish Koja & Kelly’s other selections. In Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘‘Nanny Anne and the Christ­mas Story’’, a baby sitter looking after two young sisters increasingly – and unsettlingly – assumes the personality of their mother, who is being kept away from them by bad weather during the Christ­mas holidays. In K. M. Ferebee’s ‘‘The Earth and Everything Under’’, the relationship between a de­ceased husband and his widow causes disturbances to the natural order of their small town – possibly as a result of witchcraft, but possibly owing to their intense love for one another. Usman T. Malik’s ‘‘Resurrection Points’’ (also reprinted in Paula Guran’s year’s-best anthology) uses a young boy’s indoctrination into his personal powers for reviving the dead to explore differences between Muslim and Christian cultures. Kima Jones’s demon-haunted ‘‘Nine’ draws on the southern folklore tradition and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s ‘‘Bus Fare’’ is another of her tales of albino demon slayer Dancy Flammarion. Sarah Pinsker’s ‘‘A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide’’ is a splice of fantasy and science fiction, about an amputee who receives a chip implant to power his prosthetic limb and the bizarrely altered sensorium he develops from technology intended for a completely different application. Not all of these stories would have been dark or horrific enough to have been chosen for the other year’s-best anthologies, and their inclusion among other stories that would ensures that they will be seen by a readership that might have overlooked them otherwise.

The most refreshing aspects of Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume Two are the same as for the other year’s-best compilations – the overwhelm­ing majority of its contributors are writers who have come to editor and reader attention mostly within the past decade, and the quality of the work they are publishing in books and magazines that are predominantly niche markets is indisputable. Gone are the days when the horror publishing could muster only one year’s-best anthology, sometimes featuring stories that appeared in that book for the first time. If the stories in all four year’s best-anthologies from 2015 represent a culling from the vast trove of horror, dark fantasy, and weird fiction published in 2014, then the relative lack of overlap between their contents suggests that there is even more exceptional fiction from talented writers for the readers of these books to seek out.

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 Alastair Reynolds

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds, edited by Jonathan Strahan & William Schafer (Subterranean 978-1596067660, $45.00, 784pp, hardcover) June 30, 2016

Some writers are associated so closely with either the novel or the short-story that it takes an effort to recall that they produced different-scale works outside their public comfort zone. Ellison and Sturgeon and Bradbury: short-story guys, though each has novels. Van Vogt and Heinlein and Clarke: novelists, although of course brilliant short-stories by all three can be adduced.

And so it is with Alastair Reynolds, whose massive and numerous novels surely overshadow his short fiction. But luckily for us, the perceptive editors William Schafer and Jonathan Strahan know better, and have looked more widely at the CV of Reynolds, and so they have been able to put together a collection fully as large and varied and impressive as any Reynolds opus. Eighteen entertainments, some sizable, can only be partially explicated and annotated in this particular review-space, so with that limitation in mind, off we go!

If the baseline necessity for any SF story is to have both the science and the mimetic humanity be integral to and integrated within the tale, then Reynolds’s work can stand as a prime instance of pure, archetypical SF. His novums contour and shape the human experiences and reactions within the world of his creations, and vice versa. Technology drives narrative which drives technology. It’s a satisfying feedback loop between the hearts and brains of his characters and their tools and creations.

Bruce Sterling’s classic Schismatrix can be seen as a seminal model for Reynolds’s Revelation Space universe, since both series deal with various competing factions of posthumans in off-Earth settings. Our first tale in this collection, “Great Wall of Mars,” is placed early in the future history, and features a wonderful Big Dumb Object, a kind of artificial terrarium on the Red Planet. Questions of ultimate loyalties and treacheries alternate with plenty of action. Next up is another linked story, “Weather,” whose title refers to a damaged Conjoiner woman. Set totally onboard a spaceship fleeing pirates, the story dramatizes the way in which our differing, antagonistic worldviews can separate us and yet sometimes bleed fruitfully together across all predictable barriers.

The title story is a mind-croggling one, allied to Poul Anderson’s classic Tau Zero. Humanity employs a remnant system of stargates without really comprehending how they work. And one transit goes spectacularly wrong, leading to a situation which seems bad enough—until Reynolds yanks out the rug from underneath even that dilemma in a great “conceptual breakthrough” moment.

One great facet of Reynolds’s writing is how he can take core tropes of the field and make them feel fresh and new again. “Minla’s Flowers” deals with the notion of a world doomed by cosmic forces—think of something as primal as When Worlds Collide—and how the planet’s population might be saved. Insert a visitor from a more advanced civilization facing an impossible rescue mission, and you have the recipe for a tragedy, which Reynolds twists in unpredictable ways. Echoes of the disillusioned yet eternally questing romanticism of Roger Zelazny crop up here.

In his revelatory endnotes, the author mentions his preoccupation with art and artists, and “Zima Blue” is one of the entries in that category, showing us the career of a creator whose mysterious origins conceal a life-altering secret. Jumping to a totally different scenario—an interstellar empire some 32,000 years old—“Fury” looks at the interplay between a loyal robot servant and his posthuman master. Allusions to the Kuttner-Moore novel of the same name might just be intentional.

“The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” is pure Keith-Laumer-style action, as a man forced to flee a planet finds himself as reluctant protégé to an amoral ship’s surgeon named, perfectly, Dr. Zeal. And after so many shiny technophile venues, “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a rousing contrast, almost like a medievalist fantasy set on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

The notion of an Indiana-Jones-style exploration of a place called “the Blood Spire” gets a gory workout in “Diamond Dogs.” On this one, Reynolds cops to being influenced by Budrys’s famous Rogue Moon, but I’d bring up Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze as another honorable ancestor. “Thousandth Night” reminded me a tad of Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time sequence, with its far-off unfathomable future citizens. The enigmatic spatial phenomenon known as the Matryoshka propels the events in “Troika,” as the one man who survived contact with the anomaly attempts to reconnect with those he left behind.

Resonance with The Matrix informs “Sleepover,” in which our hero is woken from suspended animation after 160 years to find a world of encapsulated humans and battling “artilects.” A sculptor who works at planetary magnitudes is the central figure in “Vainglory,” another of Reynolds’s art-centric narratives. “Trauma Pod” is enthralling but not as ground-breaking or ideationally challenging as the rest of the book, dealing with the future of military combat medicine.

A kind of Conradian tale of intertwined fates, “The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” finds our protagonists bound on a dangerous salvage-cum-rescue mission. With affinities to the socially engaged works of Lucius Shepard and Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Water Thief” shows us the plight of the poor and dispossessed in a near-future of ecological stresses. Podkayne of Mars: the Sequel? Not quite, but with its young female protagonist, “The Old Man and the Martian Sea” feels a little bit like that Heinlein classic. And finally, the droll first-person narrative of a sentient space probe embarked on a media tour is presented in “In Babelsberg.”

Combining the melancholy fatedness of early George R. R. Martin, as found in Dying of the Light, with the clear-eyed cosmicism of Stephen Baxter, Reynolds gives us a galaxy where the gravity of astronomical phenomena is counterbalanced by the dark energies of the human heart. This collection should stand as a cornerstone of the contemporary SF edifice, showing us exactly how to elegantly fuse those separate but overlapping magisteria.

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.

Rich Horton reviews Short Fiction, May 2016

Analog 4/16
Asimov’s 3/16
F&SF 3-4/16
Lightspeed 4/16
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/3/16, 3/17/16
Galaxy’s Edge 3/16

Analog leads off April with a fine story by Maggie Clark, ‘‘Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan’’. It’s told by a woman native to the planet Yul-Katan, where the people worship the sun. Having lost her faith following her father’s ‘‘ascension’’ to the station orbiting their sun, she got out, and now works as a researcher on another planet. When her team becomes embroiled (no pun intended!) in what seems to be a terrorist incident centered on the mysterious discovery of an ascended priest from Yul-Katan, much of the team is murdered, and the remainder escape on a lifeboat. The narra­tor, despite hints that she should just get on with her life, keeps investigating what happened, which leads inevitably to a return to Yul-Katan, a confrontation with her brother, and some more understanding of the situation there, and perhaps of the wider political situation in humanity’s star-spanning confederation. This is interesting and well told, and the overall background is pretty neat…. I did sense, though, that this is not a com­plete story, really, but part of something bigger.

The March Asimov’s is one of the best maga­zine issues I’ve seen in some time. All three novelettes are very fine. Ted Kosmatka’s ‘‘The Bewilderness of Lions’’ and Dale Bailey’s ‘‘I Married a Monster from Outer Space’’ both seem pure examples of stories that use familiar tropes that are modest in scope quite well in service of more mundane concerns. Kosmatka’s story is about Caitlin, who consults for a political candidate as a kind of data miner. She is able to quite successfully predict unusual happenings that might affect the campaign, until someone seems to notice, and makes her an offer…. So far, so typical: a shadowy conspiracy running the world (I was reminded a bit of the film version of Philip Dick’s ‘‘The Adjustment Bureau’’), but Kosmatka gives Caitlin a powerful back story concerning her brother and ties it very effectively to her ultimate dilemma. Bailey’s story concerns Ruth, a poor woman working in a Walmart, who married the boy who got her pregnant. The child died, and they’re struggling in believable rural-poor ways: a burdensome hospital bill, dead end jobs, drinking, a marriage going nowhere. Then one day an alien comes into her Walmart, and can’t buy anything. Ruth feels sorry for him, and brings him home. Her husband is a mechanic (but stuck at a Quicky Lube)… maybe he can fix the spaceship? Or maybe she doesn’t want the alien to leave? Or maybe she wants to get away herself? The ending is predictable, a bit pat, but the story is nicely told and honest.

The third novelette, Dominica Phetteplace’s ‘‘Project Empathy’’, is really special – one of the best stories of the year (and it’s invigorating to have been able to write that three months in a row!) Maybe the reason I liked it best is that it uses its SF tropes both in service of speculation and in service of its characters. Bel is a teen­aged girl from a poor near-future suburb of San Francisco. She works for Blue Cup, a restaurant. Because she’s an exceptional host, she gets a scholarship to a special school in the city and a chance to work for Blue Cup there. Her first day at school is illuminating: there’s intriguing speculation about schooling and about how restaurants work in this near future, as well as a plausible vision of the workings of privilege and a look at an interesting but terribly divided future society. All this is cool, but we slowly realize that what’s really interesting is the story’s narrative structure, the importance of the narrator, and even the narrator’s way of telling us the story. I won’t give any of that away, except to say that the story isn’t just about Bel – we care about her, but we care about the narrator too, and the ending opens up beautifully in leading us to that resolution.

I should also mention a couple of the shorter stories, at risk of shortchanging them a bit. Sunil Patel’s ‘‘A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time’’ is twisty fun, very short, about an evil genius and parallel worlds. And Ray Nayler’s ‘‘Do Not Forget Me’’ is a nicely multiply-framed story, set in Central Asia, in which a man tells his wife a story he heard from a poet about a slave raider and the strange wanderer he captures.

F&SF’s March/April issue has a strong novella from John P. Murphy, ‘‘The Liar’’. The narra­tor, Greg Kennedy, is a 50ish man living alone in New Hampshire. He has a nice enough life, and the new lady Pastor seems interesting and interested. And he’s a liar – which is to say, he lies about reality in a way that can change it – though only for small things, handyman-style repairs. That’s one fantastic element; the other concerns the statistically unlikely run of teenagers dying in accidents every November 5 for as long as anyone remembers. Further, Pastor Julie’s daughter is a teenager, and rebellious to boot: could she be at risk? Greg investigates, and uncovers some his­tory about a crashed bomber. The story moves along nicely, its main strength being the comfort­able voice and solid characters, as well as Greg’s interesting ability. I don’t think the resolution, or the integration of the one fantastical element with the other, quite works, but that’s a minor flaw in an enjoyable piece.

Best this issue is Cat Rambo’s ‘‘Red in Tooth and Cog’’, in which Renee, eating lunch in a park near work, has her phone stolen, and comes to realize that it was taken by an abandoned robot-creature. She becomes interested, and slowly, with the help of the park’s robot caretaker, puz­zles out some of the secrets of the park’s robotic ecology. The invention is sometimes whimsical, often very affecting, at times beautiful – and to my mind quite original.

In Lightspeed I liked, well, all the stories in April. Carrie Vaughn’s ‘‘Origin Story’’ is a good superhero (or supervillain) story, in which the heroine recognizes the villain robbing the bank she’s at…. He was her boyfriend in high school. It goes kind of where you expect from there, quite nicely. ‘‘The Birth Will Take Place on a Mutually Acceptable Research Vessel’’, by Matthew Bailey, is about a woman pregnant with an alien’s baby, who is thoroughly upset that their baby is a subject of intense scientific scrutiny from both races. Again, it goes kind of where you expect, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it gets there effectively. ‘‘The Knobby Giraffe’’ is Rudy Rucker being Rudy Rucker, playing with weird ideas about the structure of the universe, while his main character just wants her girlfriend back. A fun little piece. And my favorite this issue is the one that seemed most original to me, Nghi Vo’s ‘‘Dragon Brides’’, about an aging woman, a Queen, returning to the mountain where the dragon took her long ago (and from where her husband rescued her). Vo avoids the easy clichés, and tells a story of a woman I believed in, with an effective storytelling strategy (memories hosted in the dragon’s hoard) to open things up, and with an ending I expected, but that is earned.

March is science fantasy month at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which I always like. There’s something about mixing SF and fantasy that to my mind brings forth ideas wilder and more colorful than either genre provides alone. The best, which is to say, weirdest example comes from Jason Sanford (not surprisingly). ‘‘Blood Grains Speak Through Memories’’ (3/17) is set in a far future in which the environment is preserved by ‘‘anchors’’, humans en­hanced by ‘‘grains’’ on their land. ‘‘Normal’’ humans (called day-fellows) are forced to a nomadic life: if they stay too long anywhere, or interfere with the environment (use too high technology, or cut down a tree), the grains will compel the anchors to kill them. Frere-Jones Roeder is an anchor with doubts, some related to her now dead life-partner, some to an atrocity she committed at the behest of the grains long before, some expressed in her concern for her son, exiled to life among the day-fellows. When a day-fellow girl becomes infected by the grains on her territory, she is finally pushed to take a drastic step. It’s cool and strange stuff, almost gothic at times, thought-provoking and honest.

I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s ‘‘The Mountains His Crown’’ (3/17) for its central idea: an Emperor becomes obsessed with his daughters’ notion that his land looks a bit like him, and decides to force the farmers to plant crops to reinforce that resemblance. The plot – about a farmer who tries to find a way to change his mind – perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the main idea, though it’s OK, and the characters are strong.

Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘‘Foxfire, Foxfire’’ (3/03) is a strong story in which the fantasy element is the main character: a fox who wants to become human, by killing 100 people, and inheriting their knowledge and characteristics. The SF part is her prospective 100th victim: the pilot of a cataphract, a huge robot being used in a battle. And the story itself finds a way to be different and moving, and to invoke real sacrifice. Strong work.

Galaxy’s Edge’s latest issue features a fine very dark story by a writer new to me, Steve Pantazis. ‘‘Out of Print’’ is about a robot made illegally to help its creator rape and kill women. But what hap­pens if the robot decides it doesn’t want to do that? It’s a simple concept, but pretty effectively handled. This magazine continues to have a strong record of publishing promising work by very new authors: I’m looking, however, for really outstanding work by established writers.

Recommended Stories

‘‘The Birth Will Take Place on a Mutually
Acceptable Research Vessel’’, Matthew Bailey (Lightspeed 4/16)
‘‘The Bewilderness of Lions’’, Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s 3/16)
‘‘Foxfire, Foxfire’’ Yoon Ha Lee
(Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/3/16)
‘‘The Liar’’, John P. Murphy (F&SF 3-4/16)
‘‘Out of Print’’, Steve Pantazis
(Galaxy’s Edge 3/16)
‘‘Project Empathy’’, Dominica Phetteplace (Asimov’s 3/16)
‘‘Red of Tooth and Cog’’, Cat Rambo
(F&SF 3-4/16)
‘‘Blood Grains Speak Through Memories’’
Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/17/16)
‘‘Origin Story’’, Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed 4/16)
‘‘Dragon Brides’’, Nghi Vo (Lightspeed 4/16)

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

Faren Miller reviews Lian Hearn

Emperor of the Eight Islands, Lian Hearn (Hachette Australia 978-0733635137, A$29.99, 448pp, tp) March 2016. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 978-0-374-53631-2, $15.99, 252pp, tp) May 2016.

Emperor of the Eight Islands, first of four volumes in Lian Hearn’s ‘‘The Tale of Shika­noko’’ (all scheduled for this year), is a fantasy set in medieval Japan and inspired by some of its ‘‘warrior tales.’’ It draws on the pseudonymous author’s fascination with the country and culture, which led her to study them, and live there for a time. As the publisher informs us, she was ‘‘born in England, educated at Oxford,’’ and now lives in Australia.

Despite its place in a tetralogy, extensive list of characters, elaborate map, and mixture of the historic with the supernatural, Emperor bears little resemblance to most epic fantasies set in medieval Europe. When he first appears as a seven-year-old named Kazumaru, the hero is hiding in the long grass on one of his father’s hunting trips. His horse has wandered off, and a flock of demonic creatures – ‘‘strange-looking beings, with wings and beaks and talons like birds, but wearing clothes of a sort, red jackets, blue leggings’’ – is flying past. Soon we learn these tengu (mountain goblins) have killed the rash lord who was his father, leaving the boy traumatized: ‘‘They saw me, he thought. They know me.’’

In the rest of this brief chapter, Hearn sketches out a youth where Kazumaru is raised by a cruel uncle, but manages to survive, and develops a passion for archery: ‘‘At twelve, he suddenly grew tall, and soon after could string and draw a bow like a grown man.’’ The next chapter deals with crucial events that transform Kazumaru into Shikanoko (‘‘the deer’s child’’), beginning with another hunting expedition where his uncle pursues a famous stag. A fall, a death, a passing spirit, and a dreamlike journey trailing uncanny guides bring him to the hut of a mountain sor­cerer, its roof ‘‘thatched with bones, its walls covered with skins.’’ Here the sorcerer, with help from a mysterious woman, creates a mask that infuses him with ‘‘the strength of the stag and all the ancient wisdom of the forest’’ – changing his name forever.

New plotlines, settings, and viewpoint char­acters start to appear in the following chapters, alternating with accounts of Shikanoko’s in­creasingly complex life, which includes a stint with bandits and service to Lady Tora (who introduced Shika to his own sexuality with the rituals of the mask that she helped make). Viewed as a whole, it’s a fascinating blend of politics, priests, and monsters – some of them interacting in one man’s towering ambitions.

Unlike heroes who swiftly rise to power in their own kingdoms, Shikanoko isn’t the Em­peror of this book’s title. While others struggle for that position, he hones various skills and absorbs unconventional magics that range from the woodland to a scholar’s languages and lore. The focus shifts to other characters (just as compelling, though some of them have little contact with him through most of the book), dur­ing a time of great change where a new form of warfare develops and the fate of a nation hangs in the balance. Still, this is Shika’s ‘‘Tale’’ in its early stages, and Hearn’s lead character gripped my attention from the start – leaving me eager to see how it plays out in the next books.

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 Michael Bishop

Joel-Brock the Brave and the Valorous Smalls , by Michael Bishop (Fairwood Press/Kudzu Planet Productions 978-1933846583, $16.99, 292pp, trade paperback) June 2016

First, friends, an upfront disclaimer, disclosure, warning, mea culpa and general all-around gush of candidness.

I have been friends with Michael Bishop since we shared the pages of several fanzines some forty years ago. We have collaborated on stories and two novels. He has broken bread at my domicile, and vice versa. So I cannot pretend to be an utterly disinterested party in the appearance of his first solo novel in some twenty years (and in a very good year for this writer, during which he was just nominated for a Nebula Award as well). But what I can do is to reaffirm that my critical acumen is unblunted by my association with Mister Bishop, and that my historical track record of reviewing many, many books by my other peers, dozens of whom I know quite well, should prove that I do not dispense egoboo or accolades where they are not objectively deserved.

We have to face the fact that the field of fantastika is incestuous, and always has been. (But is it any more so than contemporary mainstream literature, where Bennington Graduate X lauds Bennington Graduate Y?) Not to review the work of friends is impossible, if you review professionally. We would have been deprived of Damon Knight’s observations about Isaac Asimov’s fiction and Judith Merril’s thoughts on J. G. Ballard if we held to such an over-stringent standard. Instead, we have to observe what John Clute calls “excessive candour” in all such situations.

Oh, hey, now that that’s settled, can I also mention that I am pals with artist Orion Zangara, who delightfully and brilliantly festooned this book with spectacular full-page drawings and seductive spot-illos? No fooling. Crikey! The only way I could be more prejudiced is if I were bosom buddies with publisher Patrick Swenson, whom, I can report, I have only ever exchanged about two words with!

On to the novel!

The indicia page of Joel-Brock the Brave and the Valorous Smalls declaims: “A Novel for Young People, Whatever Their Age,” and so we know immediately that we are technically in Young Adult territory here. But it is the same territory staked out by Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, among others classic authors, which is to say, a rich, deep and sophisticated world not unwelcoming to “mature” readers and full of emotionally resonant symbolism and surrealism as well as surface pleasures. Something for everyone.

Our protagonist is ten-year-old Joel-Brock Lollis, who returns home one seemingly normal day to find his parents and sister abducted. A hasty note warns him to hide inside the house and not to go to the authorities. He toughs it out until the cupboards are bare, then makes his way to the nearest logical refuge, the local Big Box Bonanza store where the kindly Miss Melba adopts him.

After a few days, he develops a friendship with two other employees: the dwarfish house detective Vaughnathan Valona and a shipping clerk named Addi Coe, who appears to be not much older than Joel-Brock. He also learns that his parents have been kidnaped by none other than Pither M. Borsmutch, the mysterious and reclusive tycoon who founded the Big Box Bonanza chain. It turns out the Borsmutch has been staffing his stores with cheap labor—the sporules—from the Sporangium, an underground realm populated with mushroom people and other fungoid creatures of various types. And it is into this forbidding world that Joel-Brock, Addie and Detective Valona must descend, if they are to rescue the Lollis family.

Down into the deepest sub-basements of the BBB the posse now known as the Valorous Smalls go, through a sentient Sphinx-like door, and into the cavernous myco-world, lit by an artificial sun on overhead tracks. A zillion strange obstacles present themselves to be hurdled, but luckily there are helpers as well as antagonists. After much travail—during which Joel-Brock discovers his hidden talents and desires, and Addi learns of her unknown heritage—they arrive at the gigantic fortress of Condor’s Cote. There, the final confrontation with Borsmutch will develop along most unforeseen lines.

I’ll talk about Bishop’s prose stylings first. His “adult” fiction is well known for its sometimes baroque and lapidary constructions. He forsakes the more elaborate rhetoric here, but retains much joyful and clever wordplay that younger readers particularly will relish. At times, I thought to detect some of Rudy Rucker’s stoned, free-associative dialogue.

“Lots of things suggest themselves. After, I started in Shipping, a boy in Health and Beauty—a teenage boy, I thought—may have taken me to the food bazaar. I think he did. I liked him. He was most likely an evolved fungal being, fully vested and always in pink-khaki BBB uniforms.”

“A gobbymawler sprol?” Joel-Brock asked.

“Maybe. Probably. We ate at a Yucatan food booth, fried squid in pita bread. I got sick and fainted. Some of Manny’s buds…carried me into Sporangium to try to treat my food poisoning.”

Readers will have to have a tolerance and affection for lots of this off-kilter, sometimes fey back-and-forth. I myself love such banter when it is well-done, as here.

Bishop’s prodigious powers of invention serve him well here too. There are many angles to the tale, including an ongoing dialogue between Joel-Brock and his future self. The bulk of the book takes place in the Sporangium, and there’s always a new miracle or horror around the bend. While the marvels are unpredictable and chaotic, they also exhibit the consistency and inner logic of the best dream worlds. However, as with all such tales of this type, the constant succession of wonders can become a tad wearing. Once in a while, one longs for a venue to persist long enough for fuller development. But Bishop never really tries the patience or capacities of his readers beyond endurance, and the climax is impactful enough to justify all the prior buildup.

The characterization and emotional resonances of the tale are touching and true to life. Joel-Brock remains a small boy while still exhibiting the Joseph-Campbellian Eternal Hero traits we expect. Addi receives a good fleshing-out. Perhaps Detective Valona, as the only adult among the Smalls, gets less development, being of a somewhat fixed nature, which is still entertaining.

Where the book really shines is its allusiveness to past classics. The initial abduction will immediately summon cousinhood to A Wrinkle in Time. Besides Carroll and Baum, readers might notice flavors from Daniel Pinkwater’s oeuvre and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Perhaps even Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books with their legions of fungal greycaps played a part in this tale’s composition. Certainly we can hark back to Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet series. And with the baseball motif—baseball long being an icon for Bishop—readers might recall Michael Chabon’s YA novel Summerland.

This fine, funny, affecting book—which also happens to serve as a satire on the excesses of capitalism—shows us an author still at the top of his game, intent on extending his reach into new realms while reaffirming his core themes and values from a career as extensive as the tendrils of the Sporangium itself.

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 Guy Gavriel Kay

Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay (NAL 978-0-451-47296-0, $27.00, 448pp, hc) May 2016. Cover by Larry Rostant

In the brief acknowledgments at the end of his magnificent new novel Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay mentions that his fictional Renaissance city of Obravic is an ‘‘amalgam,’’ and it occurs to me that this is as good a word as any for Kay’s much-discussed technique of combining history and fantasy, of renaming and essentially rebranding ac­tual events, places, and characters for his own purposes. I suspect that by now he’s weary of being asked why he undertakes such meticu­lous background research (in this case, largely involving the Ottoman-Habsburg wars and the Siege of Vienna), when he isn’t particularly constrained by that research in the fiction, but in fact he is as constrained as he wants to be – only the constraints are perhaps more harmonic than melodic. He allows himself freedom to improvise up to a point, and that point is what defines his uniquely nuanced approach to his dialogue between fantasy and history. Instead of finding cavities in the historical record in which to insert fantasy spectacles (as Tim Pow­ers did in that earlier entertaining fantasy built around the Siege of Vienna, The Drawing of the Dark), Kay wants to explore and enhance the fantasy-like resonance inherent in much historical fiction, and it’s a fair bet than many, if not most of his readers will have only the vaguest awareness of the historical Suleiman the Magnificent or the layout of Dubrovnik. His use of supernatural elements is deliberately, even tactically, restrained, and while a ghost is involved in one of the key events in Children of Earth and Sky, for the most part his ghosts serve, as they did in Shakespeare, as conduits of otherwise unavailable information (ghosts were essentially the mobile phones of Renais­sance drama).

Children of Earth and Sky returns us to the Europe of Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, beginning some 25 years after the fall of Sarantium, Kay’s version of Byzantium. As with all of Kay’s best work, however, its power derives less from its tweaking of history than from its complex, nuanced characters whose stories come to intertwine in revealing ways; it’s no accident that Kay chooses metaphors like tapestries and mosaics for his novels and series. Among the most appealing are Danica Gradek, a skilled ar­cher who has been drafted to join the swift-boat pirates of Senjan (a name only slightly altered from the Croatian town of Senj); Pero Villani, a young artist chosen for the risky assignment of painting a western-style portrait of the power­ful khalif Gurçu, the Suleiman-like nemesis of eastern Europe; Leonora Valeri, rescued from her father’s cruelly imposed exile to serve as a spy for Seressa (a version of Venice); and Damaz, a young warrior kidnapped as a child and now rising through the ranks of the khalif’s elite infantry force the djanni (a pretty obvious variation on janissaries). As usual, there is a rich cast of secondary figures, from servants to ship captains, merchants, priestesses, and emperors (including the exiled empress of the fallen Sarantium). Kay has a remarkable gift for lending surprising depth to even walk-on figures, but the young people carry the burden of the narrative, and this lends the tale a par­ticular poignance when the chronology opens up a bit toward the end of the novel.

In addition to his well-known skill at devis­ing various diplomatic and court intrigues, Kay is hardly averse to kinetic action sequences and detailed battlefield strategies. For me, the novel really develops its momentum during an early pirate raid in which Leonora and Danica first meet and later develop a kind of survival friendship that reflects the problematic options available to women in Renaissance Europe. We first meet Damaz in a kind of set piece in which he challenges and defeats a rival trainee who is planning what amounts to a brutal hate crime, and later follow him as a foot-soldier during the khalif’s ill-fated siege. The artist Pero – who was also aboard that ship that Danica helps raid, and who fell in love at first sight with Leonora – gets his own turn later on when he finds himself in a kind of psychological cat-and-mouse game with the terrifying khalif Gurçu, who could of course have him killed at any moment, and the khalif’s scheming family. As these various threads merge in ingenious ways – always just a bit short of seeming too ingenious – Kay builds a convincingly human answer to the paradox that has long made the Renaissance so hypnotic, so alien, and familiar with its juxtaposition of crude brutality and magnificent beauty, of high manners and low betrayals, of emerging technology and stark primitivism. It’s an amalgam, all right, but it’s also a tapestry of the sort that no one but Kay really seems to know how to do.

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Alice the Great and Powerful: A Review of Alice Through the Looking Glass

by Gary Westfahl

The visual effects are regularly creative and engaging, and there are lines here and there that might make you laugh, but overall, anyone looking for 153 minutes of entertainment on this Memorial Day weekend would be best advised to read, or reread, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) instead of watching this film, which borrows its title but none of its unique wit and charm. The work that it most recalls, as my title suggests, is the film Oz the Great and Powerful (2013 – review here), another thumb-fisted effort to “improve” upon a classic children’s book by adding new characters, new back stories for old characters, and an action-packed, melodramatic story line.

All these things might have been said about this film’s precursor, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) (and largely were said in Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Person’s review here); its crucial flaw was to present itself as a sequel to Carroll’s classic books, featuring an adult Alice who is summoned back to the fantastic world she earlier visited, in what she imagined were childhood dreams, to fulfill a prophecy that she would slay the monstrous Jabberwock. The result was the incongruous imposition of an adult perspective upon a child’s world, generating a jarring mixture of surreal whimsy and grim conflicts that, while designed to appeal to viewers both young and old, should have alienated all of them. Yet the film somehow was a huge box-office success – bespeaking, perhaps, audiences’ fervent craving for superficial novelty from a risk-averse film industry increasingly driven to generating monotonous fare – so returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton and new director James Bolin naturally resolved to replicate everything that, they believed, made the first film so appealing. And so, they have doubled down on all the features that actually made Alice in Wonderland so appalling.

Thus: the first film was burdened by a tedious and largely irrelevant frame story; this one’s frame story is even more tedious and even more irrelevant. Indeed, the opening scenes, in which a seafaring Alice (Mia Wasikowska) battles to escape from pirates, recall Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) by beginning a film in a manner so bizarre as to make audiences suspect that they had entered the wrong theatre. Evidently deeming the original drama of defeating the dictatorial Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) insufficiently compelling, the filmmakers bring Alice back to Wonderland to rescue the dying Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), grieving over the absence of his presumed dead, but now apparently alive, family, and the film concludes with Alice’s desperate efforts to prevent the apocalyptic destruction of everyone and everything in Wonderland. In the course of filling out the characters of the Red Queen, White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Mad Hatter, the first film provides a bit of their back stories; the second film kills time by providing them with families and including lengthy flashbacks describing their youth. Finally, Burton’s film introduces only one new character, Bayard the Bloodhound, otherwise relying solely on selected characters from Carroll’s books; Bolin’s film adds one character from Carroll – a briefly observed Humpty Dumpty (voice Wally Wingert) – marginalizes most of the returning characters, and primarily focuses on the new character of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen).

To echo the lame “time” jokes in the film, I must devote some time to Cohen’s strange character, the film’s most ineffectual element. Certainly, Cohen never quite figures out how to play the part, hampered by a script that alternately portrays him as a sinister scoundrel and a good-natured buffoon, and while one does not necessarily demand logic in a fantasy film, it is striking that Time sometimes seems to be in control of the entire universe and sometimes seems utterly incapable of doing anything at all. More disturbingly, a personified Time inevitably suggests the imagery of clocks and clockwork, inspiring the filmmakers to portray Time’s home as an immense, dark factory, filled with enormous gears and populated by tiny robots that never manage to be as cute as they are clearly intended to be. Further, the enormous clock at its center is powered by a “Chronosphere” that periodically expands to become a time machine, in part resembling a huge gyroscope and in part recalling Rod Taylor’s time machine in George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). (Its only Carrollian touch is an activating handle labeled “Pull Me.”) This effectively transforms a classic fantasy into a science fiction film, as Alice makes repeated attempts to change past events, only to find she cannot do so, and the film’s final crisis involves the catastrophic impact of paradoxically encountering oneself in the past. Finally, as Time appears to be bringing a sort of Industrial Revolution to Wonderland, it is not surprising to observe signs of increasing urbanization in scenes of bustling towns filled with street vendors and shops.

This is one small aspect of this film’s overarching problem: in an odd prologue, perhaps shown only in AMC theatres, director Bolin explained that his goal was to retain everything that people liked about Carroll’s stories while adding something fresh and new. In fact, more often than not, the film is rejecting and repudiating its source material. Thus, while Carroll was never focused on consistent world-building, his Wonderland is always a bucolic environment, filled with vast expanses of natural beauty and isolated dwellings, and it always appears to be summertime; it doesn’t seem right to have Alice walking through the snow, wandering into a factory, and jostling her way down a crowded city street.

One might say this represents a minor adjustment for contemporary audiences that may spend little if any time in bucolic environments; but a more grievous mutilation of its superb source is the film’s incessant moralizing. If Carroll’s books have a unifying theme, it is that Victorian children were being raised in a stultifying atmosphere of dull, didactic stories and poems, and he set out to skewer them all with sparkling parodies that have survived far longer than their dreary targets. He would absolutely recoil, then, at a story that kept pounding home trite, inspirational messages – always strive to achieve the impossible! Nothing is more important than your family! If Carroll heard one of the truisms recited by Alice in this film – “The only things worth doing are the things you do for others” – he would immediately want to make fun of it: “The only things worth doing are the things you do to others,” or “The only things worth doing are the things you do for yourself.”

It is perhaps significant, then, that the name of Alice’s father in both films is Charles Kingsleigh, recalling Victorian priest and author Charles Kingsley (1819-1875); for he is best known for writing The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a children’s story dominated by the sorts of moral messages that Carroll abhorred. One can say, then, that Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass represent what the Alice books would have been like if they had been written by Kingsley.

A problem related to the film’s focus on conveying worthwhile messages is that the most delightful aspect of Carroll’s books – their wonderful sense of humor – is necessarily pushed to the sidelines, as one cannot joke about serious matters like pursuing your dreams or helping other people. As noted, there are some amusing lines, but it is as if a quota was established beforehand, so the jokes had to be carefully rationed out. The most damning observation to make in this regard is that I cannot recall a single moment in the film when the Mad Hatter did, or said, anything funny. The Mad Hatter isn’t funny! Instead, we are repeatedly informed, and shown, that he is a warm, wonderful, sensitive human being; somehow, however, Carroll’s Mad Hatter, who displayed none of these fine qualities, is more endearing.

One must finally consider Carroll’s proposed solution to the problems faced by repressed Victorian children: namely, getting away from it all. Alice travels to Wonderland because she is bored with her everyday life, and the most significant aspect of her adventures is that, in contrast to L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, she is a relentlessly solitary traveler. She finds the people that she encounters to be mostly bothersome, and while she does have a few friendly encounters, she never makes any friends. Without trivializing the point as an explicit, uplifting lesson, in other words, Carroll consistently celebrates the virtues of running away, being by yourself, and enjoying the freedom of complete solitude.

In contrast, Bolin and Woolverton’s Alice is burdened by family ties: she misses her dead father, she loves her mother, she is constantly accompanied by supportive friends, and she is deeply attached to the Mad Hatter (even though he never does anything, in either film, to justify this extreme affection). Carroll’s Alice never expresses any desire to return home – instead, her adventures end and she suddenly finds herself back home; the film’s Alice goes home because she wants to see her beloved mother again. And she isn’t the only character focused on her family: the Mad Hatter longs for his missing family, has been scarred his entire life because his father seemed to reject him, and is overjoyed upon finally learning that his father really loves him. The Red Queen does evil things because she remains traumatized after being unfairly punished as a child and feels that “no one loves me”; however, she seems poised to reform when her sister finally apologizes and expresses her love for her. As I mentioned in an earlier review, Hollywood probably keeps falling back on extolling “family values” because it is the only theme that never arouses any protests. (Perhaps, though, it is time for a group of dedicated loners to form a new organization devoted to denouncing “familionormative” stories.)

For these reasons, I would gently disagree with the way that Linda Woolverton characterizes her own take on the Alice books, as she imagines she has created a fiercely independent, proto-feminist woman who courageously defies the restrictions imposed on women by Victorian society by rejecting an attractive marriage proposal, undertaking a career as a sea captain, and thwarting her rejected suitor’s attempt to humiliate her. However, it is also true that this Alice can never get through the day without someone’s helping hand. So, I would argue that, in her own polite fashion, Carroll’s Alice is a more genuinely liberated woman.

Woolverton also strives to be politically correct regarding one aspect of Alice of Wonderland that was widely criticized, Alice’s apparently “colonialist” desire to travel to China and, presumably, impose European rule and European values. In this film, Alice stresses that she only wishes to trade with China, not to dominate the country, and she further pays tribute to Chinese culture by wearing a colorful Chinese gown to a party hosted by her tormentor Hamish (Leo Bill), said to be what she wore during an audience with the Chinese empress. It is surprising, though, that Alice Through the Looking Glass fails to emulate Oz the Great and Powerful by crafting a multiracial Wonderland, as I only recall observing Caucasian residents (unless one counts large, anthropomorphic animals as gestures toward racial diversity).

One can further criticize Woolverton for an evident lack of originality; for, in pondering how to write a sequel to a successful adaptation of a classic children’s fantasy, she clearly watched, and borrowed from, another sequel to such an adaptation, Return to Oz (1985). As in that film, Woolverton follows a film with a prominent female villain by introducing a new, very tall, male villain; one of the robotic “seconds” in Time’s dwelling, the put-upon servant Wilkins, resembles the earlier film’s Tik-Tok, and the Red Queen’s servant and soldiers made out of vegetables recall Jack Pumpkinhead; when the seconds combine to form larger “minutes” and a gigantic “hour,” they look like Return to Oz’s rock creatures; and while the residents of Oz are imperiled because they are being turned into stone statues, the residents of Wonderland are at one point imperiled because they are being turned into rusty orange statues. Most tellingly, Woolverton emulates the earlier film by having a woman who returns from a fantastic world be misdiagnosed as insane and placed in an oppressive facility in order to be “cured” of her supposed madness (though Dorothy’s evil doctor prefers electric shocks and Alice’s evil doctor threatens her with a tranquilizing injection). Fortunately, both Dorothy and Alice are able to run away from the institution and soon are back in their respective wonderlands.

Still, Woolverton does diverge from this film – and other recent films – in one significant respect: just as Oz’s original wicked witches were killed without remorse, Return to Oz’s Nome King also dies unrepentant; however, though he at first seemed repellent, Time is ultimately presented as a basically good guy, and as indicated, even the Red Queen is recast as a victim, not a villain, and it appears that, all her sins forgiven, she will become a nice person as well. In an era when films are frequently devoted to demonizing and destroying irredeemably evil opponents, it is heartening to observe a film suggesting that apparently awful people may simply be misunderstood, and that conflicts can end with reconciliations instead of victories. It is an attitude, I think, that is sorely needed in today’s polarized political climate.

One should also praise Alice Through the Looking Glass for its inventive visual touches. When Alice first ventures through the looking glass, we see the head of a tiger-skin rug growling; to placate the visiting Red Queen, forever demanding people’s heads, Time gives her a music box adorned with a tiny figure who uses an ax to behead another figure; depicting time travel as a flight through a vast ocean, featuring images of past events, is quite arresting; and I am not sure why the Red Queen is seen living in an immense tree, filled with people made out of vegetables, but it’s fun to watch. And the woefully underutilized Cheshire Cat, spinning and floating in space while disappearing and reappearing, is a visual delight, and he is also refreshing as the character least interested in dispensing moral lessons or expressing concerns about other characters’ fates. That is to say, he is the one character in the film who actually reflects the opinions of Lewis Carroll; and if this film is as inexplicably successful as its predecessor, generating demands for a second sequel, I would suggest dispensing with Woolverton’s boring superwoman Alice and instead developing a spinoff feature starring the Cheshire Cat, who frolics through a series of episodic adventures in Wonderland without ever giving a damn about anything – a film, in other words, that Carroll himself might have enjoyed.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), 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, now available from Wildside Press.

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