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Russell Letson reviews Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks, Charles Stross (Ace 978-0-425281-192, $27.00, 385pp, hc) June 2016. Cover by Larry Rostant.

This month’s theme might be horror and the horrific, with the subtheme ‘‘Why am I reading horror when I usually don’t much care for it?’’ Of course, none of the books under consideration here are entirely or even ‘‘really’’ horror, no matter how extensively and elaborately concerned with horrific events, hauntings, or monstrous characters they might be. But this is a matter that has been nagging at me for a long time and it’s an itch I feel the need to scratch.

What, I keep wondering, lurks behind the horrors that drive these books? What do they deliver beyond mere thrills or sensations? Is there, in fact, ever a ‘‘mere thriller’’ without some underlying anxiety or primal dread – of falling, maiming, powerlessness, entrapment, the dark – the primal fears behind carnival rides and haunted houses? Why devise imagi­nary, often supernatural horrors when the history books are filled with actual events and practices every bit as bowel-liquefying and nightmare-inducing as anything on the fiction shelves?

And why, for godsake, would I read the made-up stuff? When I was researching late-19th-to-early-20th-century supernatural-scary material in grad school, it became clear that what did not make metaphysical claims (lit­eral or allegorical) was actually confronting psychological issues – that is, some species of symbolically encoded anxiety or fear or pathol­ogy. There’s no reason not to apply that to the likes of Charles Stross or Neal Asher. What’s really lurking down in the basements of their stories? What do the Laundry’s eldritch terrors stand for? What do the Prador or runamok artificial intelligences say about the world we see on the news?

But to business: Charles Stross’s Laundry series belongs to a long line of attempts to rationalize or otherwise repackage and do­mesticate the supernatural (whether horrific or merely strange-and-fantastical), going back to Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, and other occult detectives (paleo-Ghostbusters), through John Campbell’s Unknown, right up to the current Marvel comics/movies superhero universe(s). The offspring of these cousin marriages in the fantastic-fiction family include all man­ner of sexy vampires, steampunk zombies, elven cops, secret warlock societies, magical boarding schools, fallen-angel detectives, and every other possible hybrid creature capable of sustaining some intersectional genre identity.

The Nightmare Stacks is a direct sequel to The Rhesus Chart, which added vampires to the Laundry universe’s roster of spooky threats – bureaucratically redesignated (since vampires officially and emphatically Do Not Exist, and because, well, bureaucracy) as individuals suffering from PHANG (Photo­golic Hemophagic Atypical Neuroectodermal Gangrene) syndrome. Following the extensive unpleasantness that climaxed The Rhesus Chart, investment-banking-quant-turned-bloodsucker Alex Schwartz has been drafted into the Laundry’s ranks, and before he can complete his training he finds himself at the center of the next supernatural incursion to roll through England’s green & pleasant: an invasion of magic-wielding, imperialist elves from another dimension. Actually, multiple viewpoints contribute to the fiction that the book is Alex’s final report on this episode, compiled by him from various sources: his own Laundry-mandated diary, a close-third-person view from the invading-forces side, and various reconstructions by an omniscient narrator with a voice that often sounds more like Stross’s than Alex’s.

Previous Laundry stories have mixed their horror ingredients with homages to classic intrigue-thriller writers, exemplars, and modes (John le Carré, Anthony Price, superhero com­ics and movies), and this one eventually takes a turn toward the techno-thriller, all military acronyms and equipment specifications and model numbers, along with the command structures of human and elven armies. But there’s another convention-set operating here. Alex’s life outside the Laundry operates in a very rom-com/Britcom-ish mode, featuring the protagonist-as-nebbish. Alex was isolated, socially awkward, and romantically inexperi­enced even before his PHANGish condition made everything complicated and impossible to explain to outsiders. (Really impossible, given the blood oaths and geases governing his employment.) When he does finally Meet Cute with an attractive and interested young woman, the object of his romantic ambitions has her own problems, what with her day job as soul-stealing spy from a dimension where dating is as foreign an idea as free will or not murdering rival family members.

This side of the book is crowned by a family Sunday dinner from hell (ordinary domestic secular-materialist variety): Alex with his becostumed and oddly mannered girlfriend-equivalent, his younger sister with her new light-o’-love, Dad well down the gin & tonic rabbit-hole, and Mother too shellshocked by her kids’ dates to properly monitor the roast or defrost the frozen veg. They’re so rattled and disoriented that the pointy-eared fairy-spy/girlfriend who is calling herself ‘‘Cassie’’ can get away with telling the truth about her appearance:

‘‘I’m a princess-assassin of the Unseelie Court!… Not human, not even slightly hu­man. So of course I’m weird and I make horrible social blunders when I try to pass for human! Faux pas is my middle name and I don’t understand human mores at all!… I am sorry for your discombobulation! We’re going to a fancy-dress party later,’’ she confides.

It may or may not help when she adds that ‘‘Alex stole a Nazi half-track motorcycle from a mad scientist he knows through work!’’ Alex (and perhaps the reader) is almost relieved when this rolling social disaster is interrupted by the beginning of the book’s climactic con­frontation with Cassie’s terrifying dad and stepmom and their army of death-dealing, blood-drinking sorcerers and fire-breathing air force. (The last detail is not a spoiler – the cover illustration gives it away, along with the role of the Nazi half-track.)

That confrontation is an all-out military campaign, a blitzkrieg attack carried out by a desperate but confident and deadly competent horde that expects to sweep across a magically underdefended land occupied by peasants and unprepared magi. And they’re almost right, which means that while the Laundry scrambles to find the resources and personnel to respond, the invaders cut a swath of eyeball-melting, head-exploding carnage right across the heart of England’s north country, described in enough detail to remind the reader what the armature of this series remains.

Stross’s manic, very verbal, and generally very funny re-encoding of the conventions of supernatural horror feels like an attempt to hold Something at arm’s length – to domesticate, rationalize, encyst, or cushion the raw material of terror and fear; to embed it in a seriocomic adventure in which our viewpoint character and a few others survive the carnage. (Though, to be fair, that viewpoint does not entirely turn away from the nasty fates of named-and-seen characters. Even nameless horrors can be wit­nessed and detailed.) Stross’s long-unpublished first novel, Scratch Monkey, gives a more direct look at that Something, and I can’t think of a better way of saying what I wrote back then, so I’ll just plagiarize myself: ‘‘It’s a dark, painful story made bearable by the intensity of Stross’s intelligence and the strength of his writing, as though understanding and clear vision and wordcraft could compensate for the pain of seeing what is seen.’’ The comedy and the outcome keep this from being as dire and bleak a book, but it is haunted by some of the same demons.

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 Swanwick

Not So Much, Said the Cat, by Michael Swanwick (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-228-9, $15.95, 285pp, trade paperback) August 2016

Mostly unremarked, this year signifies the thirty-sixth anniversary of Michael Swanwick’s first story sale, in Robert Silverberg’s anthology New Dimensions 11. The astonishing array of high-quality tales he has graced the world with since then would constitute a sufficiency for most writers. But the damn thing is, nearly forty years into his career he is still working at the top of his game. Not many authors can say that.

With a new novel in the works—The Iron Dragon’s Mother—and an ongoing series of stories at—the “Mongolian Wizard” saga—Swanwick has still found time to compile a new collection for us, consisting of some seventeen stories that first saw the light of day between 2008 and 2014.

His entertaining and touching autobiographical introduction fittingly looks backwards at this embryonic stage of his existence, and reflects on the start of his professional writing life and a few intermediate quantum leaps of skill. Then he mentions an attitude he had toward the genre, when he was first getting acquainted with all its stellar practitioners: “I read science fiction as if it had all been written by a single genius possessed of an impossible variety of styles and interests.” This is the key to the stories that follow (and to the fact that Swanwick, debuting during the fabled cyberpunk-humanist rivalry, could never be categorized definitively as one or the other). Swanwick is still striving to embody every good thing SF does, all its modes and styles, themes and tropes, in his one lifetime. This makes for a highly pleasing variety in his tales.

Here are the briefest of thoughts and observations on the outstanding table of contents.

“The Man in Grey” is a riff on the famous solipsistic notion of existence as found in previous outings by Heinlein, Leiber and Dick. But Swanwick uses the trope to examine issues of free will as well.

The notion that the future might in some ways come to resemble older periods of myth has been around at least since the New Wave (calling Delany, Moorcock and Zelazny!) and probably in some earlier post-apocalypse tales as well. Swanwick utilizes this fairy-tale future ambiance to good effect in “The Dala Horse,” which finds our heroine on a dangerous pilgrimage beset by trolls.

A trace of Brian Aldiss’s A.I. informs “The Scarecrow’s Boy,” wherein a robot and a young refugee interact. Say the words “alien autopsy” and I’m hooked. So “Passage of Earth” entertained me well. Perhaps the slightest tale here, though not without merit, is “3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar,” about the last night of civilization.

Every writer at one time or another has to follow in Dante’s footsteps and venture into literal Hell. Tim Powers did so recently, and Swanwick’s voyage to the netherworld, “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown,” ranks up with that entry, as we watch loyal daughter Su-yin attempt to rescue her unworthy father. A tragic love affair interlinked with a scientific paradigm shift fills the compact pages of “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” nearly to bursting.

A historical setting and Swanwick’s love of James Branch Cabell informs the amusing “Goblin Lake.” The opening sentence of “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled . . .” is quite memorable: “Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound.” From there, we encounter a sentient spacesuit and other wonders.

“For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” takes all the fraught terrors and beauty of Irish history and ports them 200 years into the future. In all likelihood, “Libertarian Russia” is my favorite tale here, rivalling Bruce Sterling at his own realpolitik, hip, culture-jamming best. And I need only mention the names Surplus and Darger as stars of “Tawny Petticoats” to alert you to the manifold joys of a fresh entry in that series.

Employing a nicely innovative format of all-dialogue, “Steadfast Castle” gambols about freshly with the trope of the sentient house, seen everywhere from Ray Bradbury to The Simpsons. Borgesian counterfactuality is the mode of “Pushkin the American,” while slippage across dimensions is the MacGuffin of one man’s melancholia in “An Empty House with Many Doors.” Swanwick pulls off a particularly good homage to Gene Wolfe in “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin.” And finally, an early German work of prose gets conflated with a modern existential drama in “The House of Dreams.”

All in all, as variegated and smart and ecstatic a ride as you can get from SF these days.

Ultimately, I think what strikes me most forcefully about Swanwick’s fiction, aside from his fresh yet historically resonant conceits, is its elegance and economy. Per the definition of the perfect short story, not a word is extraneous or wasted, not one element of plot inessential. The maximum effects are achieved with the minimum of prose.

And that is an esthetic bullseye which can accommodate an infinite number of subjects and themes, and which an artist can aim for over and over again, during all of his or her career, upping his lifetime score even with a few misses here and there.

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.

Faren Miller reviews The Big Book of Science Fiction

The Big Book of Science Fiction, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Vintage 978-1-101-91009-2, $25.00, 1,176pp, tp) July 2016.

In their Introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction, editors Ann & Jeff VanderMeer note that they’re dealing with 20th-century fiction that ‘‘depicts the future, whether in a stylized or realistic manner’’ – emphasis theirs – and the breadth of the definition proves to be crucial. They link SF to the conte philosophique (thought experiment as fictional adventure), reevaluate pulp (‘‘never as hackneyed or traditional or gee-whiz as it liked to think it was’’), and trace a great flower­ing to the ’50s, where the lack of a ‘‘unifying mode or theme’’ allowed writers to ‘‘climb even farther up the walls of the world.’’ The arena continues to expand in the next decades: ‘‘While the New Wave and feminist science fiction were playing out largely in the Anglo world, the international scene was creating its own narrative.’’

Narratives also run through this anthology (just under the surface). Though presented in order of publication, these stories were cho­sen for continuing relevance and arranged to interplay like voices in a great conversation: shifting and offering new insights.

The key role of perspective appears immedi­ately, as ‘‘The Star’’ by H.G. Wells moves from a major tragedy on Earth (cometary near-miss whose dire effect resembles the worst predic­tions for a warming climate in this century) to a Martian coda where ‘‘very different beings from men’’ see less change than expected – showing ‘‘how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.’’

Long after the scientist in Alfred Jarry’s ‘‘El­ements of Pataphysics’’ shrinks down to the size of a mite to explore a water drop, there’s an odd flicker of déjà vu in the water world of ‘‘Surface Tension’’ when James Blish uses ‘‘pantropy’’ to bioengineer miniature colonists from human cells, then follows generations to the cultural apex of something resembling space flight (writ small in this tale from the early ’50s, its true purpose almost forgotten).

Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’’ (1959) splits a doomed explorer into the trapped body of ‘‘the sick man,’’ and a mind in turmoil: ‘‘Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running…’’ back toward Earthly oceans. When the parts reunite (scrabbled together a few million miles from home), the joy is bittersweet. In ‘‘The Astro­naut’’, a Soviet-era work retranslated here by Jack Womack, Valentina Zhuravlyova calls the science behind such episodes Astropsychiatry, as a ship doctor does research in an Archive of Space Travel and learns about the captain of an ancient expedition to Barnard’s Star.

Once again the VanderMeers take us (‘‘on­ward, ever onward!’’, as that captain cries): from his choice on an alien planet to events on another strange world in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘‘Vaster Than Empires and More Slow’’. Where Zhuravlyova notes that the long tedium of space­flight calls for candidates with ‘‘hobbies’’ to keep them sane, Le Guin starts by forthrightly declaring all starship explorers mad, but each probes deep enough into a crew member to show obsession that saves an imperiled mission.

I’ll end these ‘‘dialogs,’’ sampled from the abundance in The Big Book of Science Fiction, with Michael Bishop’s ‘‘The House of Com­passionate Sharers’’ and Greg Bear’s ‘‘Blood Music’’. Both explore the madness when body meets machine: Bishop with a droid counterpart to a picture conceived by Oscar Wilde, Bear in a devious feat of bioengineering where every cell develops a mind (and music) of its own.

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

John Langan reviews Joe Hill

The Fireman, Joe Hill (William Morrow 9780062200631, $28.99, 768pp, hc) May 2016.

The Fireman, Joe Hill’s big new novel, is a freight train of a book. Long, composed of many sections, it’s already in motion on the first page, and it does not let up until the very end. Its premise is straightforward: a plague is spreading around the world. The infection’s scientific name is Draco incendia trychophyton, but its popular name, Dragonscale, hints at its nature. After it manifests on the skin as a pattern of black and gold scales, the infection causes its victim to burst into flame an indeterminate – but not terribly long – time after. Its origin is uncertain, as is its means of transmission. There is no effective treatment for it, and it is spreading relentlessly. In the face of its advance, nations strain to cope, and the fear Dragonscale evokes leading governments – and increasingly, groups of frightened citizens – to more and more extreme measures.

This is apocalyptic stuff, a scenario for a wide-ranging narrative with a generous cast of characters (think The Stand, Lucifer’s Hammer, Swan Song). Joe Hill, however, chooses to eschew this approach, opting to focus on a single character coping with this end-of-the-world situation within a localized setting. His protagonist, Harper Grayson, née Willowes, is an elementary school nurse in Portsmouth NH, with a fondness for Mary Poppins. She’s married to a somewhat self-centered man, Jakob, a failed writer and something of a snob with whom she nonetheless manages to maintain a successful relationship. As the Dragonscale epidemic ex­pands to Portsmouth, Harper leaves her position at the school to work at the local hospital, which she must do from inside a bulky hazmat suit. It is while on duty at the hospital that Harper first encounters the eponymous Fireman, when he’s standing in line holding a young boy he insists requires urgent attention. The nurse in charge of the line demands the increasingly irate man wait his turn, but Harper realizes the boy in his arms is using sign language, and through her rudimentary grasp of it is able to diagnose him as likely in need of an appendectomy. This earns her the Fireman’s gratitude.

The next time Harper sees him for any length of time, she is desperately in need of the Fireman’s assistance. She has manifested the Dragonscale tattoo, and around the same time has discovered that she is pregnant. Bolstered by reports of infected women who have delivered uninfected children, Harper’s inclination is to continue forward with the pregnancy. For her husband, though, the only course of action left is for the two of them to commit suicide, opt out of the catastrophe in which they’ve found themselves. When Harper refuses, Jakob resorts to violence, breaking into their house and threat­ening her with a pistol. Her escape from him is aided by the timely intervention of the Fireman, who reveals himself to be possessed of a fantastic power, the ability to produce and control flame, which seems as if it must be connected to his case of Dragonscale, though in what exact way, Harper cannot guess.

Temporarily safe from the homicidal Jakob, Harper is brought by the Fireman to Camp Wyndham, a local summer camp on the Atlantic, not currently in use. Here, a group of infected women, men, and children have gathered to es­cape a world grown hostile and deadly to them. Within this sanctuary, the community has dis­covered something incredible: they can control their Dragonscale, prevent it from erupting into killing fire. By gathering together and singing, they can enter into a state they call the Bright, in which their markings shine but do not burn, and in which they seem to enter a low-level psychic rapport with one another. None of them displays the same powers as the Fireman, who lives apart from them on a small island just offshore from the camp. But for the moment, Harper – who has started to refer to herself by her maiden name, Willowes – feels safe. She is put to work by the camp as their nurse, a position she happily ac­cepts, and she participates in the group singing, quenching the Dragonscale’s immediate threat, and keeping her unborn child safe.

However, the novel still has a way to go. The name of the camp, Wyndham, is an early sign that it will not be the idyllic retreat for which Harper hopes. The allusion calls to mind the late English writer’s The Midwich Cuckoos, with its community of psychically powered children; it also evokes The Chrysalids, in which the obsession with genetic purity, and the horror of mutation, underpin the novel’s post-nuclear-war society. Even as the outside world turns to death squads to deal with the infected, the members of Camp Wyndham are drawn into a group mentality that is only partially explained through their communion in the Bright. Indeed, with alarming speed, the situation within the camp starts to mirror that outside it, as fear for personal safety leads those in positions of power to adopt ever more draconian policies, and those they are governing to embrace those policies with disturbing enthusiasm. Much of Joe Hill’s fiction, especially his longer works, has as its guiding principle the famous quotation from Walt Kelly’s Pogo: ‘‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’’ The novel makes early reference to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and its imagery of swirling ash recalls that awful day and others like it. It would be incorrect to read the novel as a simple allegory for the so-called War On Terror, but it would be equally remiss to deny any connection to it.

John Wyndham, though, is not the only writer to whom The Fireman alludes. Hill includes J.K. Rowling in a list of ‘‘Inspirations’’ he places at the beginning of the novel, and Harper and her friends make references to the characters and events in the Harry Potter series. Indeed, the novel might be seen as playing a kind of dark riff on Rowling’s novels, with Dragonscale filling the role of magical ability, and Camp Wyndham of Hogwarts – there is even a literal phoenix that appears at crucial moments. (And for those who want to continue with such parallels, the initials of Harper’s married name, H.G., match those of Hermione Granger.) But where Rowling’s work expresses a faith in the ability of communities to come together to resist and overcome evil, The Fireman is more pessimistic about such matters. In addition to Rowling, Hill nods in the direction of The Stand and the Dark Tower series, gives a cheeky shout-out to Margaret Atwood, debates the merits of the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, and celebrates the virtues of former MTV VJ Martha Quinn.

In the end, The Fireman demonstrates abundantly the strengths of the long novel. It immerses readers in a vividly imagined environ­ment, allowing them to develop relationships with compelling characters caught up in extreme situations, forced to make impossible decisions. Increasingly, Joe Hill has exhibited a facility with extended narrative, from the Locke & Key comics to his previous novel, NOS4A2. His new book joins what is already an impressive body of work, one whose characters continue to live in the mind long after the last page has been turned.

Harper, however, is wrong about the Rolling Stones.

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 Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg

Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Fairwood Press 978-1933846637, $16.99, 280pp, trade paperback) August 2016

Early Days: More Tales from the Pulp Era, by Robert Silverberg (Subterranean 978-1596067998, $20.00, 344pp, hardcover) August 2016

Pick one of your favorite deceased writers. The only criteria for the selection is that the person should be somewhat underserved by the historical record. In other words, no chatterboxes like Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw or John Updike or Virginia Woolf, who left scads of personal information behind. Now imagine you could get a big new volume from your fave writer, a book that held the transcriptions of long conversations he or she had conducted with an intelligent and witty interlocutor. Conversations revelatory of both personal and literary history, evocative of a vanished era. Wouldn’t you be thrilled at this fresh insight into their character and career?

Well, future fans and critics and historians are going to be very glad that Alvaro Zinos-Amaro has compiled just such a volume with Grand Master Robert Silverberg. In the fine oral tradition exemplified by previous interviewers such as Charles Platt (Dream Makers) and Darrell Schweitzer (Speaking of the Fantastic), Zinos-Amaro probes his subject with well-educated, perceptive questions about everything under the sun, eliciting a telling verbal portrait of both men in the process.

The conversation flows like a natural convention-barroom gabfest, contoured more artfully by the intelligent direction of Zinos-Amaros’s questions. The easygoing readability of the dialogue derives in large part from the fifteen-plus years of friendship between the men. In any case, some segregation of topics has been achieved by division into seven chapters on various themes, such as “The Vividness of Landscape” and “After the Myths Went Home.”

We veer from the charmingly quotidian—at what hour the newspapers arrive on the Silverberg doorstep—to the loftily metaphysical: what are the meanings of age and time, where is the culture heading? Along the way, Silverberg offers commentary on his peers and literary ancestors—who was the greater writer, Balzac or Zola; who was more clumsy, HPL or ERB?—the state of world affairs, and the pleasures of carnality. Because these talks are all of quite recent vintage, we are getting the views of a Lion in Winter, the eighty-year-old who contains the fifty-, forty- and eighteen-year-old man within his current avatar. It’s a multiplex performance, touching in in its evocation of the Seven Ages of Man.

Zinos-Amaro generously throws open the floor to questions from “the audience.” He never insists on forcing the conversation down predetermined paths if more alluring detours arise. And he is utterly simpatico with his older peer. In short, this book is the next best thing to hanging out with Silverberg himself, and a vital addition to the historical record of our genre. We see a portrait of a fellow blessed with talent, morals, ironic humor and grand passion for this genre of ours.

Many kudos also to Patrick Swenson at Fairwood Press for making this happen.

* * *

The perfect companion to Traveler of Worlds is Early Days, a sequel of sorts to 2004’s In the Beginning, which brought us a healthy heaping of Silverberg’s earliest, never-before-reprinted sales. Now we get nearly a score more of these pulpish outings, along with copious story notes that vividly conjure up that brightly colored vanished era, retroactively perceived as a second Golden Age. The fascinating thing about these tales is how they look both backwards, towards the SF of the 1930s and 1940s, and proleptically forward, towards the more variegated and sophisticated stuff of the 1960s and 1970s. Trembling at the interface of change, they prove that the 1950s was indeed the pivotal decade which Gary Wolfe’s Library of America volumes adduce it to be.

As Silverberg himself notes, various themes and motifs recur among these selections, mainly thanks to their being deliberately tailored for various markets. The ones he was writing for Super-Science, for instance, all involve human missions to weird alien worlds, where unpredictable matters of biology and culture lead to disaster. “Slaves of the Tree” might be the standout in this category. As I mentioned, it looks backwards just a bit, to then-recent revolutionary work by Philip Jose Farmer (“Mother” and The Lovers) and, with its focus on exogamy, anticipates James Tiptree.

But young Silverberg ranged widely. “Puppets Without Strings” is an exercise in surreal solipsism worthy of Leiber or Heinlein or Dick. “Housemaid No. 103” might have come from the pen of Sheckley. A. E. van Vogt seems to have had a hand in “Six Frightened Men.” In short, the apprentice Silverberg can be seen channeling his influences while still putting a unique stamp of vision and personality on his narratives. And as he proudly affirms in his notes, his dedication to the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship of storytelling is exemplary.

Silverberg also cites the fact that these beginner pieces show his mature themes in utero. A tale like “Waters of Forgetfulness,” wherein humans capitulate to the seduction of an alien environment, looks forward to a novel like Downward to the Earth.

Like his coeval Algis Budrys, Silverberg brought a more-educated, “Ivy League” background to a field formerly dominated by talented amateurs and technologically minded professionals. With role models like Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, Silverberg lifted the bar for what SF could do. His role in elevating and transforming the art form is incontestable and mighty. They don’t hand out those Grand Master Awards for nothing, you know.

But perhaps even more important, these stories remain utterly entertaining. I only wish some of the crime tales which Silverberg alludes to had been included. But that might very well be another volume for the excellent Bill Schafer at Subterranean to produce!

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 Nina Allan

The Race, Nina Allan (Newcon Press 978-1907069703, £12.99, 256pp, tp) August 2014. Cover by Ben Baldwin. (Titan Books 9781785650369, $14.95 US, 448pp, tp) July 2016.

Nina Allan has seemed on the verge of novel-making for much of her career, with novellas such as Spin and Harlequin and linked story collections like The Silver Wind and Stardust, the latter consist­ing of stories that loop and weave around each other so cleverly that, by simply attaching a few cables here and there, it could easily be read as a novel. Her first full-length novel, The Race, shares something of the choreography of that book, consisting of discrete narratives and voices which converse with each other in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, and it makes enough metafictional U-turns that even describing the second chapter seems to risk a call from the spoiler police – so let’s see how we should handle this.

First of all, the new Titan edition of The Race adds an ‘‘appendix’’ with a novella’s worth of new material not in the original 2014 edition, which was nominated for the Campbell and British Fantasy Awards – though as far as I can tell the central narrative remains the same. The long, novella-length opening chapter quickly establishes SF bona fides and explains, at least partially, the title. The narrator Jenna lives in Sapphire, a hardscrabble town near the Romney Marshes in southeast England, which were turned into a toxic wasteland through fracking and drained more than a century earlier. Now the town’s economy depends on the nominally illegal sport of racing smartdogs, greyhounds tweaked to advanced intelligence through human DNA, and which develop almost psychic connections with their human ‘‘runners,’’ thanks to chip implants (also il­legal) in the runners’ brains. It’s no secret that the first smartdogs were developed for military purposes, but the real focus of this opening chapter is less on the dogs than on Jenna’s own story. Abandoned as a teenager by her mother, she lives in fear – or at least apprehension – of her violent and disturbed brother Del, a sometime drug dealer whose ambition to be a runner was thwarted when he was rejected for the necessary brain implant. The one bright spot in his life is his daughter Luz Maree, or Lumey, who seems able to communicate with the dogs – especially a prize hound name Limlasker – even without an implant. When she is kidnapped for ransom because of Del’s drug-running debts, he hatches a scheme that reads like a dark parody of every horse movie ever made: he’ll race Limlasker to win a longshot jackpot to pay off the debt. Of course, none of this works out quite like National Velvet, and the story ends with a number of threads deliberately left dangling.

Next, we’re introduced to a writer named Christy Peller, also abandoned by her mom at 15, also in fear of her brother Derek, who had been expelled from school and works with his father in his rubbish-hauling business. While Christy’s connection to Jenna’s tale is made clear early on, her own story centers around her troubled relationship with Derek, and her fear that he may have killed his girlfriend Linda after learning that she was dumping him for her old boyfriend Alex, who seems like a minor figure until we learn that the next chapter is his story. He’s been invited by Christy to visit her, and takes an interest in her collection of short stories, some of which seem rather familiar to him. Then the point of view abruptly shifts again to the story of Maree – the kidnapped Lumey from that first chapter – who is now several years older and part of a secret govern­ment program with distinctly science fictional overtones. She lives in a diminished world in which even sea travel is hazardous because of ‘‘whale convoys,’’ and remembers almost nothing of her earlier life, except her closeness to the dog Limlasker. Allan then concludes the book with a tantalizing selection of fragments not included in the original 2014 edition: a long story by Christy concerning Maree, a program involving extraterrestrial communication, and an artist named Laura, who suspected she might be living in a parallel universe and who in fact had disappeared, the whole thing concluding with news items: journal extracts and exhibit catalog descriptions of Laura’s work, even a bit of a radio play based on these characters. While this added material doesn’t substantially alter the plot’s conclusion, it does invite us to reconsider earlier material in a substantially new light.

And yet the more The Race seems to frag­ment into multiple narratives and multiple narrators – who is exactly telling whose story at any moment, and which stories nestle in other stories? – and the more it seems to hover between genres, with fantasy place names like Crimond and Thalia mixed in with familiar geography and real environmental collapse, or with allusions to everything from James Herbert’s Rats to Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, the more it weaves its own hypnotic dream-like spell, and the more oddly unified it begins to feel as a kind of psychic landscape. For all its intricate narrative link­ages and loopbacks, the novel presents us with a world which is thoroughly seductive and ominously credible, and a degree of narrative sophistication as impressive as anything I’ve seen in recent SF.

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 Forrest Leo

The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo (Penguin 978-0-399-56263-1, $26.00, 304, hardcover) August 2016

Steampunk comes in many, many flavors. There’s the rigorous, Hard SF kind as found in The Difference Engine. There’s the slapstick fantastical Blaylockian kind. There’s the acid, satirical kind, as from Jeter. There’s the Wild, Wild West variety; the echt British Empire variety; and the decidedly counterfactual, alternate timeline type. (Couldn’t we dare to call Turtledove’s The Guns of the South steampunk?) There’s a Tom-Swiftian strain, as found in Boilerplate. And I could go on and on.

One kind of steampunk almost isn’t. I mean, there’s a type of set-in-the-past novel that’s rather subtle: not particularly steam-ish, not particularly punk-ish, so that it reads almost like a regular old historical novel. But it still trembles on the verge of steampunk. I’m thinking most prominently of Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost. Maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor falls into this category too. An academic or scholar would probably consider them purely mimetic, if exaggeratedly so. An SF fan will in all likelihood, if given any prompting, read them as steampunk.

Forrest Leo’s wonderfully demented and comical debut novel, The Gentleman, lies more towards this hazy end of the steampunk spectrum than elsewhere. You can interpret it as a straight historical novel of a farcical type, along the lines of the Flashman books. (And indeed, our “hero” is a decided cad, like Flashman.) But there’s enough oddness, including ostensibly supernatural incidents and gadgetry riff of unreality, to push it just over the edge and into steampunk territory. It’s rather as if Tom Holt and Oscar Wilde got together and decided to do up a steampunk novelty. (Wilde’s name is particularly apt, given the droll quality of the humor and the fact, as revealed in the author’s afterword, that this book started life as a play.)

Our hero and narrator is one Lionel Savage, a twenty-two-year-old poet of slight but publishable talents. Vain, self-centered, whiny, hyperbolic, Lionel is nonetheless a captivating raconteur, and reading this book, one falls fully under his hilarious tale-telling prowess. When we first encounter him he is full of despair. Needing money, he recently made a strictly commercial marriage to one Vivien Lancaster. The subsequent months have been hellish, as the pair proved unfitted for connubial bliss—at least from Lionel’s point-of-view. Lionel is considering taking “the only way out” one night when he is suddenly interrupted by an odd little fellow creeping into his studio, who intimates that he is Old Scratch—the Gentleman— himself, manifested now in order to thank Lionel for some kind words Lionel once offered on all things infernal. Well, one thing leads to another, as they often do, and Lionel utters the wish that his millstone wife Vivien should be gone from his life. And the next morning she is missing.

Now, I have not yet mentioned a central character, and that is the butler to the Savages, Simmons, who helped raise Lionel. Simmons is the epitome of all canny manservants, out-Jeeves-ing Jeeves himself, with his wide-ranging knowledge, skills and competence, and he threatens to steal every scene in which he appears.

That fateful morning, to complicate matters immensely, two new figures intrude. First is Lizzie, Lionel’s teenaged sister, who is a loose cannon, a potential libertine and rebel. Newly expelled from boarding school, she exhibits a sudden lust to paint nude men. Next is Ashley Lancaster, wife Vivien’s brother, a kind of Doc Savage frontiersman-cum-explorer, freshly arrived back in London, and most upset to find his darling sibling sold to the Devil. Now the cast is fully assembled for a kind of elaborate drawing-room farce, which also involves duels and anarchists and the attentions of the police. Can Lionel survive the social gaffes of his sister, the manly outrage of Ashley, and the tut-tutting of Simmons, to get back his wife—assuming he even wants to? Can the erudite advice from rare-book dealer Tompkins provide assistance? And what of the fabulous flying machine invented by Will Kensington, young paragon of the secretive Hefestaeum Club? And just how does one knock up the Devil on a social call?

In the manner of Jerome K. Jerome or Thorne Smith or Van Reid, the exercise of simple logic leads from one absurdity to another. The compressed timeframe of this book—all the action occurs over just a few days—adds to the compact, head-spinningness of the tale. But one essential and well-done factor of Forrest Leo’s contrivance that I have not yet mentioned is the framing device. We are, you see, reading Savage’s account only as it has been annotated and edited by Hubert Lancaster, a cousin to Ashley and Vivien. Hubert’s wry and sarcastic footnotes, as with Nabokov’s famous Pale Fire or Delany’s Phallos, are essential for a complete understanding of the significance of everything.

By the time the reader arrives at the following scene, he or she should be as pleasantly exhausted by laughter as the characters are flummoxed by absurdity:

A moment later my wife enters the room.

We must look a strange tableau before her. The Gentleman is trying to offer round tea, Lancaster is on the floor like a small child, Hubert and I are still holding our swords, and Lizzie is dressed only in a blanket, absently scratching her nose with the barrel of the duelling pistol.

This novel displays a kind of timeless quality that will ensure a long life for it. It might have appeared in the pages of Punch, circa 1886. Or on an augmented-reality tablet in the year 2086. Whenever you encounter it, you will be guaranteed a robust, riotous romp.

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.

Dawn of Injustice: A Review of Suicide Squad

by Gary Westfahl

It is not a critical term that often comes to mind, but David Ayer’s Suicide Squad strikes me as a very meh kind of film – a hodgepodge of characters and moments that work, and characters and moments that don’t work, tossed together in a story line that sometimes makes sense and sometimes doesn’t. Further, the film cannot escape the perception that it is a stopgap measure, offering an army of second-tier characters from the DC universe to keep audiences engaged until films featuring more popular superheroes can be completed and released. This is not only something one might infer from examining the projected schedule of future DC films; in a concluding scene that many viewers will miss – because it comes after the first round of credits – government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) all but affirm that this film’s Suicide Squad of unruly supervillains is slated to be shoved to the sidelines as soon as Batman can assemble a superior team of champions, the Justice League of America.

Even when the protagonists aren’t stars, fans of the DC universe will rush to this film to see how the filmmakers have rendered their collection of characters, and sometimes they will be pleased. Among those who command attention is a consistently effective Will Smith as Deadshot, though it is painfully obvious that the script was rewritten to maximize his visibility, and the film ultimately overplays the argument that this cold-hearted assassin is actually a warm, wonderful guy who only kills people when he can’t spend some quality time with his beloved daughter. Though given much less screen time, Killer Croc (Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) actually emerges as the film’s most likable villain, and the one most clearly depicted as a victim of society: “He looked like a monster, was treated like a monster, and became a monster.” One would have liked to see more of Katana (Karen Fukuhara), an obscure sword-wielding superhero bizarrely added to the team at the last minute, and while it was not a good sign that the film based one joke on the premise that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) was annoying, she is not as annoying as might have been feared.

Furthermore, Harley Quinn is at least occasionally funny – which is more than one can say about Jared Leto’s Joker, easily the film’s greatest disappointment. In contrast to his most renowned precursors – Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger – Leto seems inappropriately subdued, even dull, never displaying the maniacal energy and imagination that one expects in the character. His only amusing antic, a device borrowed from The Dark Knight (2008) (review here), is having his henchmen wear incongruously playful masks – a panda, a ram, Batman. Instead of looking forward to his periodic intrusions into the plot – efforts to rescue his girlfriend Harley Quinn – one starts to dread them, and the entire character could have been excised from the film without affecting its quality. Other disappointments include the consistently marginalized Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who rarely gets to throw one of the boomerangs that presumably led Waller to recruit him, and Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, whose overt theatricality seems forced and ineffectual. Her final scenes, when she is endeavoring the destroy the world, almost provoke laughter, as she stands on a makeshift stage, dressed like, and gesturing like, a neophyte Las Vegas showgirl surrounded by glitzy special effects.

As another major problem, the filmmakers knew that they were introducing several characters that most members of the audience had never heard of, and their unfortunate solution was to clutter the film with their backstories. Suicide Squad gets off to a slow start as Waller dutifully summarizes the careers of its major villains, and throughout the film, even at moments of greatest peril, characters will pause to recall, or describe, past experiences that help to explain why they were driven to lives of crime. There are also distractions caused by the fact that this film is merely one piece of its studio’s grand design – the DC Extended Universe! – so there are regular references to the events of the previous film, Batman v Universe: Dawn of Justice (2016) (review here), as well as hopefully tantalizing hints of the next film to come, the still-filming Justice League. So, as in the earlier film, filmgoers get another fleeting glimpse of Ezra Miller’s Flash – this time, he actually gets to say something; there are photographs of Gal Galot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman; and a few scenes feature Affleck’s Batman, again doing things utterly at odds with the hero’s established character (apparently trying to kill Deadshot, bending over to kiss Harley Quinn after rescuing her). Further, still worried about criticism of the massive violence unleashed upon the good citizens of Metropolis in Man of Steel (2013) (review here), the filmmakers take pains to include a scene of this film’s imperiled Midway City being evacuated, and as members of the Suicide Squad walk down the deserted streets, one sees huge “MANDATORY EVACUATION” signs as another reminder that no innocent bystanders will be harmed during the making of this movie.

I have so far said little about the plot of Suicide Squad, which for the most part is standard superhero fare: there is a team of villains obliged to act like heroes by the threat of instant assassination (although – surprise! – they start to like being good guys); there are two, seemingly omnipotent villains, the Enchantress and her brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine), hell-bent on wiping out the human race for no clear reason; and the struggle between these antagonists involves lots and lots of fistfights, gunplay, stabbings, beheadings, explosions, and other random acts of mayhem. What’s interesting is that the whole story can be interpreted as a fable about the dangers of Big Government, intruding into areas where they should not be intruding with ruinous results.

In the simpler times of the 1940s and 1950s, the government was content to sit back and let their superheroes perform heroic acts; today, we assume that the government will want to get involved. Thus, DC rewrote its own history of the 1940s to stipulate that it was actually President Franklin D. Roosevelt who prodded the nation’s superheroes into getting together and fighting the Axis powers, and a major theme of Batman v Superman was one senator’s attempt to establish government oversight over superheroes. Here, just as Batman in the previous film uncharacteristically abandoned his focus on fighting crime to address an imaginary problem – what if Superman turns evil? – the chief bureaucrat of this film, Amanda Waller, apparently tired of dealing with all of the world’s real issues, resolves to address another imaginary problem – what if another, evil Superman comes along? Although she enjoys a chummy relationship with Batman, as a senior government employee Waller would naturally prefer to develop a team of heroes to handle this eventuality that she can firmly micromanage: currently incarcerated supervillains. “In a world of flying men and monsters,” she soberly intones, “this is the only way to protect our country.”

Inevitably, however, everything goes wrong: first, while no evil Superman appears on the scene, a genuine menace does emerge – a villain previously under government control, the Enchantress, who is ineptly allowed to escape from confinement. Then, as the Suicide Squad goes into action to combat this government-created threat, they are repeatedly forced to waste precious time saving their non-super overseer, Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and their primary mission at one point is not to defeat the Enchantress but to rescue someone who the government intimates is the most important person in the entire world – the government’s own Amanda Waller! Further, government officials can never prevent the Joker from disabling their unstoppable technology or breaking into their impregnable prison. It is telling that the Suicide Squad finally becomes an effective fighting force only after Flag releases them from his supervision, so they can figure out on their own how to defeat two demons from another dimension; and it is finally acknowledged that their victory over the Enchantress was a matter of “luck,” not careful governmental planning.

If all of this is not enough to make people distrust their government, the film also shows that, beyond the scrutiny of civil rights lawyers, its prison officials are happy to brutally beat Deadshot and subject Harley Quinn to electric shocks; Waller personally executes several government workers unfortunate enough to observe events that they had no clearance to observe; and one Suicide Squad member who tries to escape is immediately killed. The overall message seems clear enough: if superheroes and supervillains ever emerge in our society, it will bring out the worst in our government.

Given this theme in the film, one might describe it, aptly enough, as “dark,” so it is appropriate that Deadshot tells Flag, “You know the dark places too.” But that doesn’t mean that a film like this literally has to be dark, and in this respect Suicide Squad is unpalatably similar to Batman v Superman. By my estimate, at least 80% of this film takes place at nighttime, and at one point it starts to rain as well. Someone might think that this makes everything more dramatic, but its actual effect is to make things more difficult to see – particularly while wearing 3D glasses that reduce the brightness of the screen. Thus, heroes in these films should heed the advice that Waller gives Bruce Wayne: “You should stop working nights.” Further, while they may be increasingly portrayed as troubled individuals, superheroes are also supposed to be colorful – both literally and figuratively – and in the dark, everything looks black and white. Adding to this film’s drabness is the decision to mostly dress its villains in street clothes, abandoning the distinctive uniforms traditionally worn by characters like Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, and Harley Quinn. Only the evil Enchantress has an unusual costume, and her skimpy outfit is all dark blue or black.

The least surprising aspect of Suicide Squad is that it becomes yet another Hollywood celebration of “family values.” Deadshot is inspired to do the right thing when he is handed letters from his daughter, saying, “my daughter is going to know that her daddy is not a piece of shit.” Harley Quinn is most sympathetic when her villainy is portrayed as a result of her love for the Joker: her dream, revealed in previous animated depictions of the character and shown here again, is to marry the Joker and settle down with him in a nice suburban home, complete with a modern kitchen and two adorable children. (Showing she’s a true romantic, Harley Quinn is seen reading a romance novel, Molly O’Keefe’s Between the Sheets [2014], and when Batman attacks the Joker and Harley Quinn, she screams, “You’re ruining date night.”). Flag wants to defeat the Enchantress not because she threatens to obliterate the human race but because the demon is rudely occupying the body of the woman he loves, archaeologist June Moone. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is tormented because he brought about the death of his wife and children, and he eventually resolves to assist his cohorts because, as he exclaims, “I lost one family – I ain’t gonna lose another one.” Though little occurs in the film to justify this sense of bondedness, other Suicide Squad members have apparently come to feel the same way, as Deadshot disobeys an order to kill Harley Quinn, and Harley Quinn declines an attractive offer to join the Enchantress because “you messed with my friends.”

The film can also be regarded as a tribute to the history of American popular music, since it seems that at every conceivable opportunity, there is a golden oldie playing in the background, usually with some obvious connection to the plot; e.g., when the film shows a government prison in Louisiana, one hears the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” (1964) (“There is a house in New Orleans ….”). Along with at least three new songs – Kehlani’s “Gangsta,” Dan Auerbach and Action Bronson’s “Standing in the Rain,” and “Sucker for Pain,” featuring Lil Wayne and Imagine Dragons – the film includes snippets from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” (1963), Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” (1967), the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” (1969), Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” (1969), Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” (1970), War’s “Slipping into Darkness” (1971), Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975), Rick James’s “Super Freak” (1981), and Eninem’s “Without Me” (2002). The list is not complete; presumably, only Rolf Harris’s 2014 conviction for sexual assaults on minors prevented the filmmakers from using his “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” (1960) to herald the first appearance of Australia’s Captain Boomerang. The use of all these copyrighted songs did require some additional expense, and while the filmmakers were perhaps only hoping to profit from a soundtrack album filled with proven hits, these borrowed anthems also suggest that they lacked confidence in their own material. That is, if you’re worried that filmgoers aren’t going to respond to what’s occurring on the screen, you might toss in a few bars of a favorite song to spark an emotional reaction, or provide a moment of pleasure.

Like Batman v Superman, this film seeks to acknowledge the prominent creators of the DC comic books featuring its characters by listing their names in the credits – though they go by so quickly that this time, I only noted the first name on the alphabetical list, Jim Aparo. Cynics might note that, while the gesture is nice, all of these individuals are never earning any money from these films, as all profits go directly to Time Warner, Inc. This is presumably why the writing credits do not include the name of John Ostrander, who authored the issues of Suicide Squad that most directly inspired this film. Still, the Suicide Squad does rescue Waller from a skyscraper identified as the John F. Ostrander Federal Building, which might warm the man’s heart a little bit.

Ostrander and the other authors and artists might also appreciate the fact that this film, in contrast to Batman v Superman, is truer to both the contents and spirit of the comic books it is adapting, and one leaves the theatre feeling slightly more optimistic about future installments of the DC Extended Universe. This is not to say that Suicide Squad is a masterpiece – it most certainly isn’t – but it is a better film than its predecessor; and in Hollywood’s world of flying men and monsters, dedicated to squeezing the last possible ounce of profit from every one of its valuable assets, that might be all that modern filmgoers can reasonably hope for.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Patricia A. McKillip

Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia A. McKillip (Tachyon 978-1-61696-218-0, $15.95, 276pp, tp) June 2016.

For a career of more than 40 years, Patricia McKillip hasn’t been particularly prolific in short fiction, but her generous output of first-rate novels (most recently Kingfisher, reviewed here last month) has more than satisfied a devoted readership. Still, a rare new story collection is something to look forward to, especially when, as with Dreams of Distant Shores, it includes three previously unpublished tales, a long no­vella all but unavailable since its original 1994 publication, an essay by McKillip on high fan­tasy, and an appreciative and sharply insightful afterword by Peter Beagle. Part of the reason a collection like this is especially intriguing is that, as McKillip herself points out in her essay, the romantic epic conventions of high fantasy have so often been the basic stuff of her novels, and watching her simultaneously manipulate, celebrate, invert, and challenge those conven­tions is a large part of her appeal. But there are other forms of fantasy, perhaps more gemlike, that she also seems drawn to, and even though the present collection offers us only six stories in addition to the novella and the non-fiction pieces, it’s enough to make you wonder what more she might be able to do in this area.

Two of the shortest pieces here are a good example of what I mean. The opening story, ‘‘Weird’’, is all inference and apprehension in the best postmodern sense: a man and a woman are hiding out in what seems to be a hotel bath­room, surviving on the snacks stolen from the mini-bar, while he insists she tell him of her weirdest experiences – and while some sort of unnamed apocalypse rages outside, including someone shouting in an unidentified language and pounding on the bathroom door. McKillip offers us just enough resolution to understand a bit more about the characters, but never offers to open that door. There’s a certain sort of fantastic fiction that depends as much on what is with­held as on what is told, and it tends to work best in short forms like this. ‘‘Edith and Henry Go Motoring’’ revisits the ‘‘road not taken’’ sort of ghost story (such as Henry James’s ‘‘The Jolly Corner’’), but with a distinctly haunting twist, as the title couple and their driver come across a remote and apparently abandoned great house, where a spectral figure lures them through its empty rooms. And ‘‘Alien’’, which can be read as a purely mainstream tale, concerns a family’s efforts to grapple with the recently widowed grandmother’s insistence that she’s an alien abductee, and seems to leave no room for a credible resolution – until you read McKillip’s brilliant last line.

One of McKillip’s recurrent themes that becomes evident in the short fiction is the transformative power of art. ‘‘Which Witch’’, one of the funnier stories here (why is it that writers known for elegant prose are suspected of having no humor?) originally appeared in Jonathan Strahan’s Under My Hat and concerns a club band made up of witches, whose familiars sometimes get into the act as well (part of the story is told by the narrator’s familiar, a crow). In ‘‘Mer’’, a carved wooden mermaid is the central image in a tale which quietly stretches out over centuries, as a goddess temporarily inhabits the body of a witch in a fishing com­munity (where, in the contemporary part of the story, local boys try to borrow the mermaid as a wedding prop). The most substantial of these comparatively recent stories is ‘‘The Gorgon in the Cupboard’’, a gorgeous re-imagining of the Medusa myth set among a group of artists who seemed to me (as they apparently did to Peter Beagle in his afterword) to be based on the Pre-Raphaelites, and focusing on a young homeless woman who seems to have walked straight out of one of Thomas Hardy’s direst novels. The longest novella here, ‘‘Something Rich and Strange’’ (originally published in 1994 as part of a series called ‘‘Brian Froud’s Faerielands’’, inspired by Froud paintings), concerns a West Coast artist and arts-and-crafts shop owner and her husband, who get involved with mer-people and an undersea kingdom whose survival is threatened by human incursions. The story unfolds as a kind of mystery – things showing up in the woman’s paintings she doesn’t remember draw­ing, mysterious strangers with odd powers – but the governing images are again drawn from the arts – not only the painter herself, but a possibly supernatural rock singer and a jewelry-maker. At one point, the protagonist Megan is told that in order to save her husband Jonah from the undersea world, she must draw a staircase and then descend it. It’s a neat image of art as salvation, but also of art as a portal to the immanent magical worlds that McKillip convincingly suggests are nearby, and nearly visible if you squint just right.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews David D. Levine

Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (Tor 978-0-7653-8281-8, $25.99, 352pp, hardcover) July 2016

This seems to be a “steam engine time” kind of period in publishing, when writers who have focused exclusively on short fiction for many years now step forth with their long-anticipated debut novels. (There are always plenty of debut novels, of course, in any given year, but not many of their authors nowadays have a decade or more of short-story production behind them, having instead vaulted straight to long form.) Ken Liu brought us The Grace of Kings. Yoon Ha Lee issued Ninefox Gambit. And now comes David Levine’s Arabella of Mars, ushering him into hardcovers some twenty years after his first story appeared (“The Worldcon that Wasn’t”) and a longish time after his 2005 Hugo win for “Tk’tk’tk.”

Arabella proves to be well worth the wait. It is a straight-up tale of incredible yet believable adventures fit to have flowed from the quill of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is old-school Planet Stories SF without snark, smarm or apologies. At the same time it is utterly state-of-the-art, 21st-century in its sensibilities and technics. It’s an intriguing counterfactual slightly reminiscent of Novik’s Temeraire series. It’s nuts-and-bolts gadgetry SF that John Campbell would have proudly adopted. It has gravitas and humor, romance and battle, sacrifice and victory in large measures. In short, I can’t see this book—and its intended successors, since it’s labeled Volume 1—as being anything but a huge triumph.

Here’s the conceptual background. The duration of our narrative is a mere several months spanning the years 1812 and 1813, but on a continuum divergent from ours to a large degree. In this universe, a breathable aether or atmosphere, with winds, permeates the interplanetary distances, enabling unpressurized ships to sail from planet to planet, once they launch themselves from terra firma. (And who was the first man to make the voyage from Earth to the Red Planet? None other than Captain Kidd!) Mars and Venus are both habitable by humans, and are basically the kinds of world described in those recent anthologies by Dozois and Martin, Old Mars and Old Venus. Mars boasts natives—carapaced, craboidal bipeds—and we can assume Venus has her aliens as well, though that planet is outside this installment’s purview. Mars is dry and sandy, Venus swampy.

The Ashby plantation on Mars is a rich estate providing a special kind of tree used for ship-building, where our heroine dwells with her older brother Michael and two younger sisters. Born on Mars, seventeen-year-old Arabella loves the place. Her mother, however, does not, and succeeds in relocating herself and the reluctant girls back to Earth, leaving the menfolk behind.

Arabella is miserable on the strange “homeworld.” And when her adult cousin Simon conceives of a plan to voyage to Mars to wrest the plantation deceitfully away from brother Michael, Arabella’s only course is clear. She must follow Simon and prevent the usurpation. This strategy involves disguising herself as male; enlisting on a commercial vessel under the redoubtable Captain Singh and his cybernetic (and sentient?) navigator, Aadim; and facing hardships galore, including manning the motivating pedals of the ship; dealing with surly rival crew members, pirates, and mutineers; and laboring for days of emergency charcoal-burning on a remote forested asteroid.

But if the journey as a sailor to Mars is difficult and taxing, what follows upon landing is pure heartbreak and savagery. I shall not spoil your thrills by detailing the events in advance of your reading.

Levine’s breakdown of his story into various organically interflowing sections is capably designed to maximize the engagement of the reader and the maturation of Arabella. First comes the brief opener on Mars, which tells us a lot about the planet, this peculiar universe and the Ashby family. The few chapters on Earth set the MacGuffin of Arabella chasing Simon in motion, the whole engine of the plot. The huge majority of the book is Arabella’s service on Captain Singh’s ship during the Earth-Mars transit, which shows us the intricate mechanics of celestial travel, all vividly described; Arabella’s trial by fire and the refinement of her natural strengths; and her growing emotional attachment to Singh, along with many scary and amusing interactions among the crew. Finally, the climactic section on Mars reveals Arabella’s new capacities, ties up the family matters, and positions a springboard to future installments.

Arabella is onstage on every page, and a charming creation she is. No superwoman nor suffragette, she nevertheless by simple competence, bravery, talent and spunk proves herself equal to any of the male characters and superior to several. Her trepidations, fears and mistakes are given fair weight as well, rendering her sympathetically fallible. The rest of the cast achieves a nice roundedness as well. Singh reminded me of another Asian captain from fantastika—Verne’s Nemo, though less dour and doomed.

What is really miraculous about this book is the way Levine balances between deep cognitive estrangement and pure surface storytelling. Here’s what I mean. Suppose this same story had been told by, say, Ian MacLeod or John Crowley. The balance would have tipped, I think, towards a density of effects and interiority, producing a book similar to The Light Ages or Engine Summer—both wonderful, excellent books, but involuted. Now suppose Edgar Rice Burroughs—an obvious influence and ancestor here—had written Arabella of Mars. Well, you know how that volume would have read, all breathless action but somewhat shallow and pulpy. But instead of either of those two extremes, Levine has produced a book that combines the best of both modes.

Part of this derives from his very deft and poetically calculated language. He has found a graceful style of prose that achieves a certain gravitas without being Henry Fielding. It is not full-bore 1812 syntax and rhetoric, but neither is it anachronistically 21st-century speak. Arabella’s attitudes and language artfully reflect the mindset and education of a girl of the Napoleonic era. The voice of the omniscient narrator continues in this semi-formal, semi-familiar vein, conducive to easy, yet challenging reading. The reader is quickly absorbed into the new world, her senses sharpened for the twisty bits while relishing the homey parts.

Feisty young ladies from Mars used to be represented by ERB’s Dejah Thoris and Heinlein’s Podkayne (and to a lesser degree by Al Sarrantonio’s criminally neglected Haydn of Mars). Now to this illustrious roster we can add Arabella, who, if her later adventures adhere to this high standard, might outshine them all.

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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