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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.

Russell Letson reviews Zachary Brown

Titan’s Fall, Zachary Brown (Saga 978-1-4814-3038-8, $14.99, 204pp, tp) March 2016.

I keep insisting that the usual run of military-SF adventures has a limited appeal for me – a description of the limits of my tastes and interests rather than a judgment on the value of the whole subgenre or even of particular books I might set aside after a chapter or two. And I’m vain enough to believe that when a military-themed book hooks me, it’s because it really does pos­sess some special quality. That has been the case with a number of titles over the last couple years, including The Darkside War (reviewed in July 2015), the first-in-a-series book by the pseudony­mous ‘‘Zachary Brown.’’ As with recent work by Greg Bear, Ann Leckie, and Linda Nagata, Brown’s picture of future soldiering and the context in which it operates leavens traditional respect for the fighting man and woman with a recognition of the ambiguities, ironies, failures, and outright criminalities of warfare.

This becomes the central non-combat feature of Brown’s second book, Titan’s Fall, which follows the career of Devlin Hart, a reluctant soldier in a war visited on our solar system by contending alien powers. The Accordance arrived on Earth bearing gifts, along with a big-stick attitude toward any locals who were disinclined to join their war against the really, really nasty Conglomeration forces heading our way. After the Conglomeration attack that gave the first book its title, Hart and his two surviving squadmates – Accordance-loyalist Ken Awojobi and street-smart hacker Amira Singh – have be­come celebrities of a kind. Now they are stationed on Titan, heavily fortified by the Accordance but under Conglomeration threat, and they find them­selves facing internal as well as external menaces. On the conventional-combat side, ‘‘conventional’’ means facing alien tech with big knobs on: self-configuring swarms of robotic ‘‘crickets’’; big, armored reptilian-cyborg ‘‘raptors’’; ‘‘drivers’’ that turn an Accordance trooper into a ‘‘brain-dead meat-puppet’’; bipedal, rhino-like ‘‘trolls’’ that can ‘‘stamp you into a puddle.’’

Accordance personnel aren’t much more appeal­ing – the officer corps consists mainly of the arro­gant, clannish, octopus-ish Arvani, who see humans as cannon-fodder. The ostrich-looking ‘‘struthi­form’’ doctors are decent enough, though, and the platoon’s medic is a sympathetic, chorus-like character. Shriek (his real name is unpronounce­able) is physically damaged and psychologically traumatized (his planet has been destroyed by the Conglomeration) but dedicated, though he refuses to learn the names of the soldiers he treats, because it would make losing them even more painful. The most interesting aliens by far are Accordance allies who can and do refuse to be either clients or subordinates: the Pcholem, space-born living starships who volunteer to oppose the Conglom­eration, who never forget an admirable deed, and who thus remember Devlin for his actions in the Darkside battle.

The novel’s title telegraphs the arc of the story, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that in addition to the expected scenes of combat on Titan’s exotic surface and in the tunnels of Accordance installations, loyalties are betrayed, coats are turned, mutinies raised and quelled, and lines – of battle and internal alliance – are drawn and redrawn.

It’s interesting to watch Brown and Greg Bear (War Dogs and Killing Titan, reviewed in Novem­ber 2014 and 2015 respectively) work with parallel situations and components, and it’s hard not to see both series as responses to our real post-WW2 history, with great powers drafting third-party nations or colonies into their conflicts and waging proxy wars that have little or nothing to do with the interests of many of the combatants – beyond the unpalatable choice of deciding which meatgrinder will chew up one’s homeland. Both series see inter­stellar, interspecies warfare from the viewpoint of the dragooned colonial, the volunteer-at-gunpoint. Great powers and hierarchies contend, whole plan­ets and civilizations are at risk, but value abides in the squad, in the grunts who have your back, and in the competence and courage of soldiers who know your name and trust your judgment.

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 Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

The Medusa Chronicles, by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz 978-1473210189, £16.99, 336pp, hardcover) May 2016 (Saga 978-1481479677, $26.99, 416pp, hardcover) June 2016

This is not the first time Stephen Baxter has collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke. The Light of Other Days came out in the year 2000, and the three volumes in the Time Odyssey sequence also all appeared while Clarke was still alive (he died in 2008). How much the senior author contributed to each project will forever remain unknown to everyone but the younger partner. Nonetheless, Baxter always showed himself fully in tune with the modes, motives, means and missions of Clarke, evidently to Clarke’s full approval. So this posthumous joint venture—or “sequel by other hands,” if you will—where Clarke can have contributed only the basic starting point, can still be reliably counted on, I think, to honor the original inspirational novella—“A Meeting with Medusa,” written in 1971 when Clarke was at his prime.

Now, add in the talents of New Space Opera UK Superstar Alastair Reynolds, and the resulting book should be a right treat. And so it proves to be. A semi-Stapledonian history of our intelligence-haunted solar system.

The first thing I should mention about this review is that I have not gone back and re-read Clarke’s original launchpad story, especially since the current authors provide a handy synopsis of it in the front of the new book. I don’t think one needs to, to enjoy the new production. And the second thing to note is that the voice of The Medusa Chronicles is utterly organic and seamless, a blend of Baxter’s and Reynolds’ distinct styles which emulates Clarke’s to a high degree, without affectations or pastiche.

Our hero is Howard Falcon, the first man to have seen the native inhabitants of Jupiter, the medusae. Restored after an accident to the condition of a cyborg, Falcon is indeed civilization’s only man-machine hybrid, what with popular opinion and legislation having come down against such fusions. That status will leave Falcon in a liminal condition that makes him the perfect ambassador from humanity to its heirs, as we shall see.

The book opens just a few years after the incidents of the Clarke story. We get acquainted with the political and technocratic players of the era, including the “simps,” uplifted simians. There’s a suspenseful incident of terrorism. We also learn in subtle fashion that this is a counterfactual timeline to ours (an RFK presidency, for instance); necessarily so, I think, to accommodate the 1971 ancestry of the story. Then, with the narrative parameters in place, we begin hopscotching across the centuries. For Falcon’s condition has rendered him more or less immortal, transforming him into “a calm, passionless witness to centuries rolling like tides across the solar system.”

It would be indiscreet of me to reveal all the surprises Reynolds and Baxter have in store for the reader, so I will just outline them broadly. First, they depict a fully inhabited solar system, where mankind has established beachheads from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt. Then they take Falcon out to the Oort Cloud, where he is instrumental in the birth of true artificial intelligence. (Like Ultron and Hank Pym, the son and father relationship gets a lot of resonant play.) These silicon intellects, dubbed simply the Machines, will become humanity’s competitors and doom-bringers. We next follow Falcon back to Jupiter, where he uncovers Martian skullduggery. At this point is issued the Jupiter Ultimatum by the Machines, involving the fate of Earth five centuries hence. Falcon takes a trip to Mercury for a vital last-ditch campaign against the Machines. In the twenty-sixth century we witness the demise of the home planet.

Several decades pass, with humans dispersed into niches around the solar system. A faction intent on getting revenge against the Machines approaches Falcon for the role of intermediary. Again, he descends into Jupiter’s atmosphere. But will this prove to be his final mortal mission?

The authors exhibit all the speculative brilliance for which they are individually known. Their conceits range all the way from the kind of flaring eruptions of cosmic energies that would have been familiar to Doc Smith to quantum-based technologies at the cutting-edge of today’s physics. Logic viruses that spread through entanglement? Now that’s sense of wonder! Their language is always precise and transparent, allowing the reader to grok what’s happening. And their characters, while not Flaubertian in depth, achieve enough solidity and capaciousness to hold our sympathies and vibrate thrillingly under the dramatic circumstances of their lives.

The quasi-mystical cascade of epiphanies that close out the book echoes Clarke’s 2001 climax in a satisfying manner, as well as some elements of Childhood’s End. I would also adduce Greg Benford’s Galactic Center Saga as a model for this well-stuffed novel.

With this book, Baxter and Reynolds honor Clarke’s legacy at the same time as they point the way forward for the continuation of Clarke’s brand of optimistic SF which is no mere wish-fulfillment “competence porn” but also a clear-sighted depiction of both the virtues and vices of our species.

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 Madeline Ashby

Company Town, Madeline Ashby (Tor 978-0-7653-8290-0, $24.99, 256pp, hc) May 2016.

The streetwise, working class bodyguard hired to protect a sheltered member of a wealthy family has been a staple of hardboiled fiction for decades, and you can see why: the class ten­sions that underlie the whole genre are brought to center stage, the decadence and unexamined privileges of the rich are easily parodied, and the value of a skilled kickfighter always seems to trump the arrogance of – well, a Trump. Violence is the great equalizer, just like it used to be in Westerns and just as it still is in a lot of SF. It’s also the central premise of Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, whose very title suggests the struggles between the owners and the owned, between corporate goals and individual ambi­tions. The title might just as well have fit any number of documentary films from the 1930s, but what gives Ashby’s novel its immediacy, and much of its considerable power, is the setting: an enormous, arcology-sized oil rig – actually five separate towers – off the coast of Newfoundland. The entire complex is in the process of being taken over by the wealthy Lynch family, and Go Jung-hwa, known simply as Hwa, is distrustful of a family that she suspects might have been involved in an explosion that killed her brother three years earlier. A half-Korean martial arts expert, Hwa’s job is providing security for the unionized sex workers on the rig, and she does it so well that she draws the attention of Daniel Siofra from the Lynch family, who hires her to protect Joel, the 15-year-old heir apparent to the family fortune.

But Hwa has other qualifications as well. A facial disfigurement creates a ‘‘natural dazzle’’ that makes it hard to see her on camera, and she’s virtually the only fully organic person on the rig, lacking any of the various body modifications or augmentations that might make her hackable. The skill with which Ashby introduces her various SF elements – climate change, cyborgization, eventually even multiple timelines, a genera­tion starship, and a Singularity – and insinuates them seamlessly into the plot, is worthy of the best Heinlein (who also wrote of working class conflicts and valorized street competence), and it soon becomes apparent that a lot more is at stake here than the safety of the precocious and brilliant Joel. But is Joel really the one who needs protection? A series of increasingly gruesome murders seem to be targeting Hwa’s own friends and acquaintances, with growing hints that she herself is the real target.

Hwa is a terrific character, if a somewhat famil­iar one: tough, violent, suspicious of everyone, and yet vulnerable and lonely and incredulous at the thought that anyone might actually care for her – the sort of character who would break your knees if you called her spunky, but who finds genuine affection puzzling. At first, she seems to buy a bit too easily into the world of privilege offered by the Lynch family, which itself seems more sympathetic than expected: Daniel and Joel both seem to develop a genuine concern for her, which she doesn’t quite know how to return. It turns out, the family patriarch Zachariah Lynch has entire closets full of ominous secrets, and Daniel – who isn’t even a family member – has a bizarre backstory of his own, while Joel is too young and too smart to be easily co-opted by his family’s darker values. Will those darker values prevail, or will the Lynch family be undone? Is any sort of future in this grim industrial setting re­ally viable? As a brutal murder mystery in a very detailed and convincing SF setting, Company Town never falters in its pacing, and introduces its more SFnal complications with considerable skill. Even though we’ve met folks like this be­fore, and even though some readers might find the ending a bit orchestral, it’s a terrific ride at the hands of a storyteller as skilled in her own way as Hwa is in hers.

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

Gardner Dozois reviews Short Fiction, April 2016

Clarkesworld 1/16, 2/16
Asimov’s 2/16
Interzone 1-2/16

Clarkesworld is off to a good start in 2016, with two strong issues in January and February. (As a conflict-of-interest disclaimer, I’m the reprints editor for Clarkesworld, but since I have absolutely nothing to do with the selection of the original fiction, it seems like I ought to be able to get away with reviewing it as I would stuff from any other source.) The best story in the January Clarkesworld is Rich Larson’s ‘‘Extraction Request’’, a viscerally powerful, disturbing, at times even horrific, bit of military SF. It’s about soldiers crashed in hostile territory on an alien planet, and the protean alien creatures they struggle desperately to fight off… creatures that cannibalize the bodies of their fallen comrades in order to further attack them. The SF details of the future military tech that the soldiers use are ingenious and well worked-out, but what the story really delivers is gut-churning emotion, and, in fact, the story is nightmarish enough to qualify as technohorror. Also in January, Robert Reed’s ‘‘The Algorithms of Value’’ shows us that no matter how perfect a future utopia is, there’s always going to be somebody who’s dissatisfied with it. In ‘‘The Abduction of Europa’’, E. Catherine Tobler takes us to the outer Solar System to follow two stranded humans trudging across the endless icefields of Europa in a desperate attempt to get back to the station they came from before they freeze to death or run out of food and water. For much of its length, this is a people-struggling-to-survive-and-reach-safety-in-a-hostile-alien-environment story, or an Endurance Slog Story, a form that goes all the way back to stories such as H.B. Fyfe’s ‘‘Moonwalk’’ from 1952, but a transformational aspect eventually enters the story, and takes it in odd directions. It’s a bit foggy at times (I never did see a clear explanation of what the lost station was supposed to be, for instance), but rewards persistence. ‘‘Everyone Loves Charles’’ by Chinese writer Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu, is a novella, a rare form for Clarkesworld, which usually tends to publish short stories and novelettes instead. It’s well written line-by-line, as is to be expected from something translated by as good a stylist as Liu, but takes much too long to cover pretty familiar ground: the man who prefers his illusionary cyber-fantasy life to the more disappointing reality of everyday life.

The February Clarkesworld is another strong issue. Best story here is probably ‘‘The Fixer’’ by Paul McAuley, which shows us an AI that has set itself up as a god over the deliberately degenerated population of a lost colony world, and the unexpected interrogation to justify its actions it suddenly comes under. It’s all told from the point of view of the AI, who proves quite human in the levels of rationalization and self-serving justifications it’s capable of coming up with. Clever stuff. Also excellent is ‘‘In the Midst of Life’’ by Nick Wolven, in which a corporate fixer runs into a big problem evicting squatters from an abandoned building which is about to be torn down to make room for a new one. Problems grow exponentially when he learns that the squatters have turned into a cult with a charismatic guru, and grow even worse when he himself begins to be swayed by some of the guru’s teachings. This one is somewhat longer than usual too, a long novelette if not a novella, and if this represents a trend for Clarkesworld to use longer stories, it’s one I heartily approve of, as long stories, particularly novellas, have long been the form best suited for the genre. ‘‘Between Dragons and Their Wrath’’ by An Owomoyela & Rachel Swirsky is a surreal fantasy in which the dragons are not much like the dragons usually encountered in fantasy literature, but rather beings who spread malign influences all around them, so that even coming near to where one has been can cause sickness and death – not too difficult a metaphor to figure out.

Much like the January Asimov’s, the February Asimov’s contains a lot of entertaining stories worth the reading, but nothing particularly outstanding. The best story here is probably Sean McMullen’s ‘‘Exceptional Forces’’, a sly and clever story about a genius reasoning with a female assassin who’s come to his hotel room to kill him; this one goes off in unexpected directions and is all the more satisfying as a result. Also good, although intensely sad, is Bruce McAllister’s ‘‘Bringing Them Back’’, in which someone in a near future destroyed by climate change lists all the creatures that used to share the planet with us but which now are gone forever, a list on which he includes himself as one of the last representatives of homo sapiens. In ‘‘The Charge and the Storm’’, An Owomoyela takes us to a world where human refugees from a crashed spaceship have been taken into enclosed cities by aliens (who themselves seem to be refugees from the surface of their own planet; victims of catastrophic climate change, perhaps? From a different planet altogether? It’s not entirely clear). The humans and aliens have reached a state of uneasy co-existence and equilibrium, although one that’s constantly threatened by human radicals who want to tip the balance toward human domination of the more technologically advanced aliens, and who aren’t afraid to use terrorist attacks to fulfill that end. This is the story of one woman who stands as both a bridge and a barrier between the two races. The protagonist is so insular, always preoccupied with problems and emotions that we might not understand at first, and the backstory complicated enough, that the story is a chewy read in places, particularly early on, but becomes compelling by the end.

Nick Wolven’s ‘‘Passion Summer’’ is an elegantly written story about a boy coming of age in a future where the artificial manipulation of emotions is possible. He must decide on who or what to select for his first Passion, an artificially created obsession that may enthrall him for the rest of his life; turns out that there are unexpected drawbacks to this process, especially when you come from a dysfunctional family where your mother has become addicted to these kind of neurochemical alterations of mental states.

‘‘The Monster of 1928’’ by Sandra McDonald is a nicely done story, full of authentic-seeming historical detail, about a flood that devastated the Everglades in the late ’20s; a not-terribly-formidable Cthulhu (one who’s capable of being challenged for dominance by an alligator) shows up later, but the story doesn’t really need him and could have been told as a straight historical period piece instead – except, of course, that then McDonald probably wouldn’t have any place to sell the story in the first place. Similarly, ‘‘In Equity’’ by Sarah Gallien is the story of an orphan anxiously awaiting placement in a new home, fearing that they won’t accept him. Except for a few unessential science fictional details, it could easily have been told as a straight mainstream story instead. And Michael Libling’s ‘‘The Grocer’s Wife (Enhanced Transcription)’’ examines the rather unconvincing idea of artificially generated Alzheimer’s disease.

The January/February issue of Interzone, #262, is a strong one, with more science fiction than usual, and a number of interestingly varied locations, different from the near-future British dystopia that I’ve come to think of as the default Interzone story. The best story here is probably Mercurio D. Rivera’s ‘‘The Water Walls of Enceladus’’, another in his Wergen series, in which a race of technologically advanced aliens are enthralled by the ‘‘beauty’’ of human beings and will do anything to remain worshipfully in their presence. This one is set on Enceladus, where a woman considered by humans to be spectacularly disfigured has self-exiled herself to do essentially meaningless scientific busywork with a colony of appreciative Wergen who devotedly follow her every move, something that has begun to get on her nerves. She tries to escape, and what happens next shows just what lengths the Wergen will go to in order to not be separated from their beloved. ‘‘A Strange Loop’’ by T.R. Napper, written in a loose, jazzy style that seems to be typical of Napper, if untypical of Interzone, is the story of a man who makes his living selling his memories, but decides he wants some of them back, reminiscent in some ways of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; an entertaining piece, although I did wonder why his memories would be worth so much money, since they seemed mostly to be of trauma and unhappiness. ‘‘Empty Planets’’ by Rahul Kanakia is a meandering tale of a kid growing up in a prosperous, multi-planetary society who spends most of his life feeling that he is on the verge of coming up with a marvelous philosophical idea or insight, and then never actually comes up with one – which might make the story seem kind of pointless, except that I suspect that that pointlessness is the point. ‘‘Geologic’’ by Ian Sales sets up an intriguing situation on an alien planet where an ancient artifact has been discovered, and then abruptly ends the story without resolving anything, as if Sales had gotten tired of telling it. ‘‘Dependent Assemblies’’ by Philip A. Suggars is the issue’s only fantasy, dealing with the uses and problems of using a substance called ‘‘lux’’ that invests inanimate objects with life, rather like the Powder of Life in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. It’s atmospherically written, but I always thought that fantasy stories seemed out-of-place somehow in Interzone, and this one seems especially incongruous surrounded by all the SF in the issue.

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 Frank Herbert

Four Unpublished Novels: High-Opp, Angel’s Fall, A Game of Authors, A Thorn in the Bush, by Frank Herbert (WordFire 978-1614753391, $19.99, 570, trade paperback) February 2016

Out of all the major writers of his generation, Frank Herbert (1920-1986) seems most in danger of becoming remembered solely for one novel—or rather, the series which that novel launched. Mention his name today, to fans old and new alike, some thirty years after his death (my lord, how did three decades zip by so fast!), and the universal response is likely to be, “Yes, of course, the author of Dune!” Overlooked or forgotten are all the other fine books of his career.

This one-trick-pony status does not adhere, I think, to many other Grandmasters (although of course, technically speaking, Herbert never was awarded that specific prize from SFWA, although a strong case could be made that he deserved it). Heinlein’s reputation currently encompasses several well-regarded masterpieces, as do the legacies of Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Pohl, Vance, van Vogt, and other deceased members on that honor roll. Maybe Clifford Simak is the fellow who is somewhat in an analogous position, with City being almost his exclusive milestone in the eyes of most people.

Now, it’s wonderful that posterity remembers anything about any writer thirty years after his death, even if they recall only a single book. Most writers fade into total obscurity soon after they are no longer around to promote themselves. But perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced view of Frank Herbert than just “that guy who invented sandworms.”

Certainly Frank Herbert’s son Brian has done much to promote his father’s varied oeuvre. And second in line as a booster is Kevin J. Anderson, who has famously and ably continued the Dune franchise with prequels. With the formation by Anderson of his own small press, WordFire, the living author has done even more to honor his dead colleague. He has brought several of Frank Herbert’s titles back into print. Moreover, he has found and published four trunk novels from the elder statesman. Originally issued as singleton volumes, they are now available in an omnibus at a bargain price. This is a major moment for both scholars and pure readers. (Also on tap is a volume of Unpublished Stories, not quite ready for sale as of this writing.)

As Anderson reveals in his introduction, these four books were composed after the success of Herbert’s first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1956). They are finished product, deemed fully polished by Herbert at the time. But unable to place any of them, even with the help of agents, he moved ahead to Dune, serialized beginning in 1963, and the rest is history, with these novels languishing. Consequently, these books reflect the vintage era of their composition.

High-Opp is almost the perfect Galaxy novel of The Space Merchants variety, so much so that it seems almost a pastiche or parody crafted to hit every plot point, and redeemed mainly by Herbert’s insights into power dynamics and the psychological twists and turns of the human soul under pressure.

Once again, society and the world have been rigidified inequitably along monomaniacal lines. Polling and a new science that reduces the randomness of predictions all led to a tyranny of the Majority, aided by computers and other gadgets. (“Gallup” and “Roper” are exclamatory deities.) High-Opp people are the elite, while the Low-Opp hoi polloi suffer. But some of the elite have recognized that the system is rotten and must fall, so they are subverting it from within. These schemers engage our hero, Daniel Movius (a name indicative of some “Prime Mover” perhaps?) as their stalking horse, willing to sacrifice him to provoke rebellion. But he proves uniquely adapted to his role, and with the capacities of a van Vogtian hyper-brain and a sternness of character, he surges to a paramount victory.

The whole arc of the book takes place over just a few months, and Herbert is unrelenting in his pacing. The action scenes are staged with verve, the dialogue is realistic and gripping, and there’s even some super-science rigmarole with spy rays and the like. The cultural adaptations to this stratified social structure are convincingly extrapolated. The tensions between Movius and his wife Grace partake of those Phildickian battle-of-the-sexes rituals emblematic of 1950s America. And there’s a The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ambiance to the Machiavellian struggles. But despite—or perhaps because of—this colorful, not always coherent mélange, the novel is vastly entertaining and unputdownable.

The 1950s saw a fascination with noirish jungle adventures, in both movie and book form, starting with 1951’s The African Queen. Take one white-man tough guy, seedy and amoral, perhaps “gone native,” add in some female love interest, nasty bad guys, savage tribes-people, a treasure, physical challenges of the wilderness, and you had the ingredients for an infinite number of tales. Secret of the Incas from 1954, arguably the model for Indiana Jones’s later adventures, is something of an apex in the genre. In Angels’ Fall, Herbert gives the mode his best efforts, and assembles a riveting novel that should have been a primo Gold Medal Paperback Original at the time.

Jeb Logan runs a small two-airplane cargo-hauling firm in Ecuador. Into his life unpromisingly comes client Monti Bannon and her son David, on the trail of her husband, who’s gone missing in the jungle. Convinced against his own instincts to ferry her out, Jeb and his plane and passengers go down on a river. They pick up Bannon’s creepy partner, Gettler, and now the four have to take the plane downriver back to civilization, facing headhunters, wild beasts—and the brutal domination of the vicious Gettler. It’s a harrowing, thrilling journey.

Bouncing amongst the consciousness of all his characters, as he did in Dune, Herbert evokes sympathy for everyone. And bits and pieces of these inner narratives foreshadow his later concerns: “Fear is the penalty of consciousness…The images within my mind are part of me, he told himself. I don’t need to fear them. They’re the past.” Holy Bene Gesserit, all you House Atreides followers!

Herbert concocts an intriguing premise for A Game of Authors, and then inhabits it in his best John D. MacDonald suit. He takes the famous disappearance of Ambrose Bierce into Mexico and conflates it with Cold War espionage. In the case of this novel, the vanished author is one Antone Luac, who absconded decades ago with Anita Peabody, the wife of another man. Getting a clue about Luac’s continued presence in the little town of Ciudad Brockman, Mexico, investigative freelance journalist Hal Garson heads down for the scoop of a lifetime. But amidst a cast of colorful locals, including the hulking and dangerous Choco Medina, Garson soon finds his life in danger, and learns that Luac is involved—or at the mercy of—some ruthless conspirators. Luac’s beautiful daughter Anita, named after her dead mother, spices the pot and plot.

Herbert’s amusing tough-guy dialogue is counterbalanced by his portrait of Luac, which captures Bierce’s famous misanthropy and epigrammatic brilliance. The action and suspense are reasonably fierce. The depiction of Garson walks a fine and convincing line between pigheaded self-interest and nobility. All in all, one could easily envision a film version of this with Robert Mitchum in the lead, like some lesser-rate Out of the Past.

Last and least consequential, but still enjoyable, comes A Thorn in the Bush, another Mexican adventure (inspired by Herbert’s travels to that country), a kind of cat-and-mouse game between the mysterious Mrs. Ross, expatriate, and a visiting painter who is stalking her. Oddly enough, it has almost a Eudora Welty vibe.

Besides providing some true and undiminished reading pleasure, these four forgotten novels shine a probing and revelatory light on the career of one of the fields geniuses, filling in missing pieces of a career cut short too soon.

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 Judith Merril

The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism: Judith Merril’s Nonfiction, Judith Merril (Aqueduct Press 978-1-61976-093-6, $22.00, 348pp, tp) March 2016.

I am a review junkie. As a high-school stu­dent, I loved The Saturday Review, and when I started reading SF magazines, I always turned to the review sections first, not so much for a buyer’s guide (I was omnivorous anyway) as for the conversation about SF. It was from these review columns that I got my first taste of criti­cal discourse: from Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Avram Davidson, Floyd C. Gale, Damon Knight, P. Schuyler Miller, Joanna Russ, and (‘‘by a commodius vicus of recirculation’’) the subject of this review, Judith Merril.

Between 1956 and 1969, Merril produced a body of commentary that explored and explained the field of science fiction and fantasy even as it was changing around her and her readers. She was not an academic critic but an anthologist, reviewer, and working SF writer. She was also a long-time member of the SF subculture from the 1940s onward: a member of the Futurians and the Hydra Club and a co-founder of the Milford Writers’ Conference. Her critical work was more practical than theoretical, but nonetheless systematic and precise. She was a commentator who was also a practitioner, an analyst who was also a fan, with a broad-church sensibility that could not disentangle SF from the cultures that surrounded it.

In The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism, editor Ritch Calvin has gathered and condensed thirteen years’ worth of material into a single vol­ume that includes the introductions and ‘‘sum­mation’’ essays from her long-running series of annual ‘‘Best SF’’ anthologies; book reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; and a single long, reflective essay written for the Science Fiction Research Association’s journal Extrapolation. The chronological arrangement allows us to follow Merril as she explores the shape and extent of the modern fantastic, locates particular writers and works in that geography, and develops an aesthetic and historical-social framework for making judgments. (The full texts of all the items are available as an e-book, which is nearly twice as long as the print version. Omitted material consists mainly of individual story introductions from the annual anthologies.)

I remember reading each of the post-1960 items in this volume as they came out, and back­tracking to the earlier ‘‘Year’s Best’’ volumes to fill out the set. (All the anthologies are on a shelf behind me as I write, though my runs of F&SF and Extrapolation are down in the basement.) Here are contemporaneous responses to work by J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Daniel Keyes, R. A. Lafferty, Richard McKenna, I. B. Singer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Roger Zelazny, among others. At the same time, Merril was developing a critical context that included the business side of writ­ing and publishing, and the general literary and cultural currents that shaped the fiction she followed. On re-reading everything at once a half-century later, I recognize how much they formed my baby-critic thinking about how SF fits into the rest of literature.

As I composed this column, I kept trying to extract and synthesize an overview of Merril’s Lit’ry The­ory from the range of documents but then realized that Ritch Calvin had already performed that service in his excellent ‘‘Introduction: The SF Aesthetics of Judith Merril’’. I cannot, however, resist pointing out a few things that struck me as particularly noteworthy. The volume’s title is taken from Merril’s own mocking characterization (found in the e-book version of the 1957 S-F: The Year’s Greatest volume) of her method of assembling an anthology: ‘‘When I find a story I like, I mark it for re-reading. (The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is simple: any story I can’t enjoy as much the second – or fourth – time as the first does not deserve to be printed more than once.)’’

Despite that aw-shucks-ish pragmatic take on the critical act of selection, Merril was already looking at general-cultural and publishing-environmental factors affecting the genre. For example, the fifth annual Year’s Best S-F (1960) includes an early recognition of the importance of the publishing environment, following from state-of-the-market observations in previous volumes (number of magazines, books, etc. published). This prefigures Algis Budrys’s 1983 monograph Non-literary Influences on Science Fiction and represents an until-then (and perhaps still) underappreciated part of literary studies. She also traced the growing acceptance of science fiction and what might be called a science-fictional sensibility, as SF-related ideas and themes filtered into the culture at large. In the ‘‘Summation’’ for the tenth Year’s Best volume (1965), she writes,

I have been pointing out the meeting places on the literary scene where the once-sequestered science-fictionist now mingles freely with the journalist, the experimentalist, the poet and philosopher and an occasional visitor from the academic or international world of letters.

In that same volume she comments on, quotes, cites, or name-checks J. G. Ballard, Max Beer­bohm, Reginald Bretnor, John Brunner, Algis Budrys, David R. Bunch, William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Disch, Carol Emsh­willer, James T. Farrell, John Gunther, Donald Hall, Fred Hoyle, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Stur­geon, Kurt Vonnegut…. Well, you get the idea. A year later she published that long (15,000 word) two-part essay, ‘‘What Do You Mean Science? Fiction?’’ that brings together the historical, evaluative, and socioeconomic threads that make up her actual Lit’ry Theory – a document that I think SF scholars should still read with close attention.

The 1968 Democratic Convention marked a turning point in Merril’s life, documented in the remarkable opening paragraphs of the January 1969 F&SF column. She would write one more review piece for the magazine, then a long ap­preciation for the special Fritz Leiber issue in July, and then relocate to Canada.

So, an executive summary: The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism reveals a sharp eye (for detail and nuance), a sharp mind (for analytical insights), and a sharp tongue (because Voice is crucial to these pieces). Her observations and evaluations stand up remarkably well five and six decades on, and the Theory that evolves and emerges across those years is at least as useful as any enshrined in a university-press volume. This book reminds me of what I still want to be when I grow up: Judith Merril.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Matthew Cheney

Blood: Stories, by Matthew Cheney (Black Lawrence Press 978-1625579416, $18.95, 330pp, trade paperback) February 2016

To this observer, standing somewhat outside the subgenre, it seems that Horror and New Weird are experiencing an exciting Renaissance—or maybe an event akin to the Cambrian Explosion, with exotic species and extravagant eco-niches exfoliating in a sudden burst. Many new writers and small presses, re-energized established writers, all in conversation with each other. Fresh styles and themes and reassessments of older material. Exhumations of past masters (I should hasten to say, “not literally,” given the genre). Awards like the Shirley Jackson trophy that recognize the new awesomeness. It’s the kind of happening scene that one day we will look back upon as a unique and legendary period of ferment and accomplishment.

A well-wrought and substantial and invigorating contribution to this Belle Epoque now arrives in the form of Matthew Cheney’s first solo book of fiction, Blood. His name has previously appeared on anthologies as an editor, but all the while, since at least the days of his “Getting a Date for Amelia” (2001), he has been amassing macabre and odd tales in various periodicals, with finally enough, over a score, to fill a volume. (And judging by the copyright information, several previously unpublished stories grace the table of contents, including the one that is my favorite.)

Let’s look at a selection of the twenty-one items.

Leading off with a vignette that is almost a prose poem, “How to Play With Dolls,” Cheney shows a miniaturist’s eye for eccentric behaviors that are like the cryptic ripples atop a body of water indicative of behemoths cruising below the surface. We also get the first hint that families will form an important motif in his work. Also in this mode is “The Voice,” whose first line demonstrates Cheney’s talent for catchy openers: “He used to hear voices at night—not so much multiple voices as one voice, though its inflections and accents varied from time to time, depending on the thickness of the clouds and the brightness of the moon.”

The title story and the next one, “Revelations,” share first-person narration from youngsters embroiled in the savage doings of their elders. The author likes to focus on turbulent milieus, such as war and survivalist nightmares. Cheney’s prose is restrained, almost unnaturally so, given the severity of the events, hinting at the emotional traumas involved, that must be tamped down lest even greater chaos erupt. And while adults are culpable, his children are far from perfect innocents, being already contaminated or complicit in the horrors around them.

“How Far to Englishman’s Bay” is a classic worthy of Robert Aickman, reminiscent of The Wicker Man as well. Bookstore owner Max hears a strange call that causes him to abandon his whole life and motor toward the titular destination, there to find a welcome that is ritualistically tragic and fulfilling at once.

“Thin” is one of the originals here, and reminds me of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” in its portrait of self-imposed suffering with basically inexplicable causation. Curiously enough, we later on run across “Mrs. Kafka,” which is the most surreal and authentic depiction of insanity—or higher sanity—that I have recently encountered.

“The Last Elegy” has a kind of Thomas Mann melancholia about it, not so much fantastical as autumnally foredoomed. Its topic of transgenderism will surely resonate more deeply even than when it was published in 2007.

We had all failed by then—failed as husbands, failed as lovers, failed as humanitarians, failed as despots, failed ourselves, failed the people we cared about, failed to remember what we should have remembered, failed to learn what we were expected to learn, failed to be all that we could be, failed to understand—and somehow we met one night, the group of us, a failed congregation, under a bridge on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Thus opens “The Art of Comedy” which develops into a mordant, outré version of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” Closing with the line, “My failure was complete,” the story encapsulates Cheney’s preoccupation with the struggling but eternally damned and downtrodden underdog.

“Walk in the Light While There Is Light” chronicles the life of a fellow named, simply, Baskerville, who goes from chthonic monster to object of scientific study and, later, societal abandonment. “He had certainly lost some of his vocabulary during his time in the dark—for instance, he identified an umbrella as a ‘floppy disk’…” That witty sentence is typical of Cheney’s drollery.

I will close my appreciation of this sterling collection by pointing out one of the previously unseen tales, the favorite I alluded to earlier, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”. Simply put, this is a long counterfactual account of the life of Ronald Reagan, pulp writer for Astounding and other zines, and, afterwards, home-spun messiah. With incredible verisimilitude and just the right amount of period details, Cheney delivers a story whose parallels with Reagan’s “real” life are numerous and apt, and whose alternate-reality byways are organic and irreproachable. Nor is this a mere thoughtless and easy satirical slander on the man. Instead, Cheney inhabits Reagan’s psyche with sympathy and charity.

Like Rhys Hughes and Don Webb, Steven Millhauser and Donald Barthelme, Matthew Cheney is a citizen of those strange lands “beyond the fields we know,” who brings back fever-dream reportage wrapped up in packages both bloody and colorful.

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 Lavie Tidhar

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon 978-1-61696-214-2, $15.95, 252pp, tp) May 2016.

Since the beginning of his career, Lavie Tidhar has shown a fascination with all varieties of pulp writing, from the obscure Yiddish writer in A Man Lies Dreaming, to the series espionage potboilers of Osama, to superhero comics in The Violent Century. But at the same time, over the past five or six years, he has been writing a quieter, rather lovely series of tales that are both more lyrical in style and more directly engaged with particular SF traditions than the high-wire acts of his more transgressive novels. Detailing the lives of an interlinked group of characters who live and work around a massive spaceport called Central Station in a future Tel Aviv, these stories, apparently with some revisions, are now assembled in Central Station, in which they’ve been arranged and given chapter titles in a rather half-hearted and thoroughly unnecessary attempt to look like a novel. While the stories, a few of which have been included in multiple ‘‘year’s best’’ anthologies, stand quite well on their own, they do gain considerable resonance together, as with the best such story cycles from Sherwood Anderson to, perhaps more immediately relevant, Clifford Simak or Cordwainer Smith. There are more than a few nods to Smith in Central Station, from references to outer space as the Up and Out, to semi-legendary figures like St. Cohen of the Others, to classically Smith-like drop-kick sentences, such as, ‘‘She emerged from the virtuality years or decades later; or it could have just taken a moment.’’ Smith may not have quite invented the technique of presenting the future not just as it might be, but as it might be remembered, but he brought it to a kind of lyrical perfection, and Tidhar echoes this lyricism in a prologue in which he tells us, ‘‘This all happened long ago, but we still remember; and we whisper to each other the old tales across the aeons, here in our sojourn among the stars.’’

There are knowing references to other SF as well; in ‘‘Strigoi’’, the data-vampire protagonist is referred to as a ‘‘shambleau’’ in a nod to C.L. Moore, while the recurring figure of the robot priest R. Brother Patch-It invokes both Asimov and Simak, and, a bit more waggish, one of the competing churches in future Tel Aviv is the ‘‘Elronites.’’ Despite the manifest affection for older SF, Central Station is neither pastiche nor parody, and there are darker and more contemporary aspects to this future as well – cyborgized and alienated war veterans called robotniks; addiction to a vision-inducing drug called Crucifixation; ‘‘post-mortal options’’ including cryogenics, ‘‘translation’’ into the virtual matrix (here called the Conversation), or cyborgization; an emerging counter-society of Others, or self-aware AIs living in the virtuality. Almost everyone, from birth, has a ‘‘node’’ which connects them to the Conversation. Underlying it all is the vividly realized and historically complex setting of Tel Aviv, haunted by its long, conten­tious history, abiding Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and economic inequality with the district of Jaffa. At the same time that Tel Aviv-Jaffa is haunted by the history of our own era, it haunts the more distant future of the implied frame-tale.

Most of the stories revolve around a couple of families, the Chongs and the Joneses. In the opening chapter, ‘‘The Indignity of Rain’’, local bar-owner Miriam Jones takes her adoptive son Kranki to the spaceport, where he again vainly hopes to meet his father returning from space. Instead they meet Boris Chong, the heir of a dy­nasty which dates back to the original construc­tion of Central Station itself. Later we’ll learn of Boris’s involvement with Carmel, the hunted ‘‘vampire’’ or ‘‘shambleau’’ who manages to get through Central Station security, and we’ll meet Miriam’s brother Achimwene, a book collector who, born without a node or connection to the Conversation, comes to value the older form of information storage in books. Another character we meet in the first story, Isobel Chow, makes her living in the virtuality as a captain in an online game called the Guilds of Ashkelon, and she herself gets engaged to a damaged robotnik veteran named Motl, who in turn leads us to other connections, and so on. Some of the characters, like the ‘‘god artist’’ Eliezer or the junk dealer Ibrahim (the ‘‘Lord of Discarded Things’’), seem to have their own legends, with hints that Ibrahim might be a kind of immortal figure dating back almost to our own era. In good linked-story tradition, minor characters in one story become major characters in another, and the overall tapestry that emerges attains a persuasive unity, even if it’s not quite a novel. The stories include some of Tidhar’s most beautiful prose, and his future Tel Aviv is among the most evocative settings in recent SF, not least because Tidhar, rather wisely, refrains from expanding the point of view to, for example, the Martian colonies (readers interested in check­ing those out might want to read Tidhar’s Martian Sands). Somehow, Central Station combines a cultural sensibility too long invisible in SF with a sensibility which is nothing but classic SF, and the result is a rather elegant suite of tales.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Thomas Olde Heuvelt

HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor 978-0-7653-7880-4, $25.99, 384pp, hardcover) April 2016

The acclaimed Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt was born around the same time cyberpunk was: 1983. If that could make a person feel old, said person should probably attempt to let another equally valid, more positive feeling triumph: one of happy reassurance. Olde Heuvelt’s youthful presence is a sign that new generations of writers are nobly carrying forward the Great Work of Modern Fantastika, which has been flourishing for a couple of centuries already through just such a succession of talents. As older authors fade away or retreat to the sidelines, they can be assured that their legacy and the field to which they devoted their own youthful days will live on.

According to Olde Heuvelt’s ISFDB entry, HEX is his fifth novel, but only the first the be translated into English. Indeed, aside from a couple of translated stories, he remains unknown to most SF readers, so this book will be his calling card. What readers will discover is a deftly crafted, darkly Gothic, at times surreal tale that is both innovative and traditional in parts. As someone who has avowed Stephen King as an early influence, Olde Huevelt is plainly intent on furthering that particular lineage of Modern Weird, but through the perceptions of a new generation. Additionally, to my sense, this project conveys a cinematic influence from such directors as M. Night Shyamalan. And considering explicit references in the text to The Blair Witch Project, other filmmakers stand behind Olde Huevelt’s esthetic as well.

The town of Black Spring, New York, lying along the upper Hudson River, should be a lovely bedroom community, housing as it does some three thousand well-off souls in a beautiful pastoral setting. But there is one factor which renders the place a miserable hell. The Black Rock Witch rules the town.

Originally a woman named Katherine van Wyler, she was executed in the year 1664. Later on, her corpse had its eyes and mouth sewn shut, and chains were wrapped around it. But mere death did not deter the Witch from reappearing as a ghost for the next three centuries, bearing the marks of her punishment and seeking mute revenge. And in fact, she is a most corporeal spirit, able to interact with people and animals and objects, should any of the former be foolish enough to touch her. Katherine’s random travels through the town—she might materialize in your bedroom, for instance—are tracked by the residents with the smartphone HEXapp, so that they can always be aware of avoiding her. HEX, we come to understand, is the agency that oversees the town and its horrid secret. The administrators of HEX ensure that all safety protocols and prohibitions are obeyed by the townspeople under pain of reeducation or death, and that no Outsiders ever learn about the Witch. Because the few times that Outsiders have gotten wind of the phenomenon and tried to interfere, people began to die in large quantities.

Oh, yes: anyone born into Black Spring or dwelling there for a certain time is forever doomed to remain with the borders, for their health. Native citizens can be away for short periods, but soon begin to face suicidal impulses if distant from home for too long.

Having set up this scenario, Olde Huevelt begins to pick it apart. Naturally, to portray the town during its periods of stability would constitute no exciting story. Instead, the author brings in as narrative engine the younger generation of kids who are chafing at these restrictions and want a revolution. A certain posse of teens is trying to “scientifically” suss out the Witch’s parameters and broadcast her existence to the world through the internet and some viral YouTube videos. Needless to say, this scheme does not go well. Madness, death and sorrow will fill the town.

Olde Huevelt creates a nicely representative and varied cast of characters, all authentically human (even the Witch, in her path of damnation), but he wisely limits his core viewpoints to a handful of folks. There is the Grant family, whose son Tyler is one of the ringleaders of the rebels. There is Robert Grim, HEX cadre, who is torn between sympathy for the villagers and his duties. And there is Griselda Holst, who has developed a strange fetishistic relationship with the witch, and whose son, Jaydon, one of the rebels, precipitates the crisis by physical interference with the Witch. (Is a family named “VanderMeer” a Tuckerization of a certain other fabulist author?)

Olde Huevelt is dealing with one of fantastika’s potent core tropes here, the Shunned or Secret Village that harbors a curse or tainted legacy. His book instantly resonates with scores of other texts, from Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life!” to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Lovecraft’s tales of Innsmouth. One of the primary tensions in such stories is the dynamic between tradition and change, which Olde Huevelt plays on in his intergenerational warfare. Another is the meaning of Original Sin, for it’s always some initial triggering event which launches the town on its fate. Lastly, this trope is useful for dramatizing the role of the community versus the contrarian individual. We are forced to examine the merits of communal wisdom versus a freethinker’s conceptual breakthroughs. And while most of the times we tend to side with the rebels in such stories, Olde Huevelt manages to show that community standards often exist for very good and practical reasons.

Olde Huevelt strikes me as a tad more old school than such current cutting-edge horror writers as Ligotti, Ballingrud, Tremblay, Nicolay and Barron. His straightforward, in-your-face effects lack the ambiguity of morality and narrativity that those other authors display.

Olde Huevelt is fully capable of creating many suspenseful, nerve-wracking scenes that lead inexorably to his planned, albeit unpredictable outcome. Moreover, his adoption of the North American venue is cannily done, with no false steps a writer working from Europe might be expected to make. The whole setting and events cohere beautifully. But your mileage may vary on how effective or justified or fitting you feel the apocalyptic ending of the novel to be. This is not a book of redemption and heroism, but is instead fueled by the worst elements of human nature and the unforgiving malignity of the universe, starkly limned in blood-red and grave-black.

Lastly, let me give all credit to Nancy Forest-Flier for a gripping, fluid, graceful translation.

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.


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