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On Books

Outside America

by Peter Heck

By Norman Spinrad
Tor, $27.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8427-0

Spinrad is in top form with this near-future novel set in a New Orleans that has felt the brunt of global warming and sea level rise without abandoning the “good times roll” spirit that defines the Crescent City.

We see the story through three characters. J.B. Lafitte is a wheeler-dealer who has a finger in almost every sleazy deal that goes on in the city. Luke Martin came from gang territory out on the half-drowned fringes of the city; when he figured out that the cops are the ultimate street gang, he joined up. And then there’s MaryLou Boudreau, a.k.a. Mama Legba, who made the transition from street performer to TV stardom as the Voodoo Queen of Louisiana.

The story’s key conflict arises from super-deflation—to the point that prices of most consumer goods are ridiculously low. Great as this sounds, it has two unfortunate consequences. Most people’s salaries have been adjusted downward, so they’re getting equivalent purchasing power to what their old salary would have bought. But some things have not been adjusted—specifically, mortgages. Luke figures this out when he’s assigned to foreclose on a house—his own. Outraged by the request, he goes to the police union, which backs him, declaring it will no longer serve foreclosure notices on its members.

But by putting himself forward, even on a selfish motive, Luke has made himself a symbol of the fight against the ultra-rich who are the beneficiaries of the super-deflation crisis. This fight is bound to grow beyond the comparatively privileged ranks of the police force.

Even wheeler-dealer J.B. Lafitte discovers that the proceeds of gambling and prostitution aren’t sufficient to pay the mortgages on his properties—and he’s got connections that reach far into Louisiana political circles.

Meanwhile, MaryLou has been taking her role as a voodoo queen seriously enough to actually do some research into it—and connects with some real believers who let her take part in one of their ceremonies. Out of nowhere, she finds herself being taken over by Erzuli, one of the loas or ruling spirits of the voodoo pantheon. Erzuli has her own ambitions, and she’s decided MaryLou is a convenient vehicle to get her where she wants to go.

Luke and MaryLou have unwittingly put themselves on paths that will shake up the whole power structure of New Orleans and Louisiana. Those paths inevitably intersect, as both become more powerful and the stakes grow higher. The foreclosure crisis continues, and Luke’s stake in it continues to grow, particularly when it becomes a statewide issue in a gubernatorial election. And of course, J.B.’s maneuvers—not all of which come out exactly as planned—have a good deal to do with the outcome.

This is vintage Spinrad, with over-the-top characters, underhanded politics, sex and drugs, and plenty of juicy New Orleans local color, all presented in typical high-energy style. Totally recommended.

*   *   *

By Vic James
Del Rey, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-425-28415-5

This debut novel is a British alternate-world fantasy with young protagonists, set in a tough class-conscious society where magic is the property of a small core of aristocrats—the Equals.

This world’s history diverges from ours in the 1600s, when a powerful magician overthrew the British monarchy and established the Equals as the true rulers of the land. Among their perks is a requirement that all commoners spend a ten-year term in unpaid servitude to the Equals—or the “aristos,” as the subjugated classes call them.

The novel follows the career of two families—the Hadleys, who sign on to spend their slavedays with the Jardines, the most powerful of all Equal families. It seems like a good plan—both the parents and the oldest daughter, Abi, who’s just about to enter university, have skills that figure to exempt them from the most menial or dangerous jobs. Except, when the day comes for them to leave home and take on their assignments, the Hadleys learn there’s no place for their son Luke at the Jardine estate in Kyneston. He’s to be sent to Millmoor, a notoriously brutal manufacturing town that lives up to William Blake’s image of “dark Satanic mills.”

Meanwhile, on the Aristo side, the story focuses on the Jardine family’s three sons: Gavar, Jenner, and Silyen. Gavar, the eldest, is being groomed to take over the house’s leading role in the nation’s politics, though he finds it hard to take seriously anything but his own pleasures—which are those you’d expect of a spoiled aristocrat. Jenner, the middle son, is without magical power—a crippling lack, in this world. As a result, he is in many ways the most human of the family. Silyen, for his part, appears to have one of the most powerful magical gifts ever seen—and an interest in using it in unprecedented ways.

The plot shifts back and forth between Kyneston and Millmoor, where Luke takes his share of lumps before figuring out how to fit in. Eventually he learns there is a resistance movement among the slaves—one that can make good use of a young boy willing to take a few risks. And while the aristos appear to have all the power, they can’t be everywhere all the time.

Meanwhile at Kyneston, Abi finds herself working as a secretary for the Jardines—a position that exposes her to some of the family’s secrets. Her ten-year-old sister, Daisy, is given the job of baby-sitting Libby, Gavar’s daughter with a slave girl who was killed trying to escape the estate. And on the aristos’ side, a major political struggle is building up, with a scheduled vote on a measure to cede some of their powers. Silyen is studying ancient magic in hopes of helping a family member recover from a magical disaster that has left her in a coma. Each of them has their own agenda, and alliances shift as each finds a temporary advantage. And of course, events outside the closed enclave of Kyneston have a momentum of their own—some pointing toward the possibility of change, though it looks as if the deck is stacked against it.

The author also gives the reader a look beyond the here and now, with glimpses of the history of the realm and how the rise of magic has affected other English-speaking countries. The overall effect is somewhere between “Harry Potter” without the boarding school and “Hunger Games” without the hunting. It probably does a better job of preparing young readers for the real world of 2017 and beyond than either of those very popular series.

As the book ends, it’s clear there’s a sequel on the horizon. That’s excellent news; I’ll be looking forward to it eagerly.

*   *   *

By Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon, $19.95 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-61696-248-7

Beagle, whose The Last Unicorn is a fantasy classic, returns to the theme of that book with a story of a rough Italian farmer who wakes one morning to find that a unicorn has made her home on his land.

Claudio Bianchi is a loner. He tends his vineyard and his animals, and writes the occasional poem—though he keeps that to himself. His only regular contact is the mailman, Romano, who likes to chat—much to Claudio’s annoyance. Claudio hates change, and Romano reminds him of the way things are changing, especially when he talks about his younger sister Giovanna, whom Claudio thinks of as a child, growing up and starting to drive. Besides, Romano never brings any mail worth reading—only useless advertisements.

Claudio’s world seems likely to go on in much the same manner, until one frosty morning, he looks out the kitchen window and sees the unicorn in his vineyard, nibbling on weeds. When it notices him, it disappears—but when he walks out to where it was, hoof prints remain to show it was no hallucination. The unicorn frequently returns, and Claudio’s life is firmly set in its new direction. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is an inspiration to him: his poetry takes on a new vigor, and he begins looking forward to its visits. All the farm animals seem to be enchanted by the unicorn, as well. As a solitary man is likely to do, he finds himself talking to the unicorn. It seems to be listening—though of course, it never replies. And then he realizes that the unicorn is pregnant and has chosen his farm as the place to give birth to her young.

But there’s another surprise to come. The mailman decides to let his sister deliver the mail every so often, and of course, on her first day on the route, she finds Claudio with the unicorn. She immediately recognizes that it is pregnant, and now she and Claudio have a secret in common. She agrees not to tell anyone, on condition that he reads her one of the poems her brother is convinced the old farmer is writing—even though Claudio has never admitted it. And gradually, the relationship between the two of them grows into something else.

Of course, word somehow gets out, and much of the book involves Claudio dealing with the consequences of the astonishing news. With the unicorn refusing to appear when strangers are on the farm, he can get away with the claim that the story is untrue—everybody knows there’s no such animal. But some of the unwelcome visitors are more persistent than others. The final elements of the plot are driven by Claudio’s attempts to regain his old privacy while protecting the unicorn from the outside world.

Readers who remember his earlier book will be glad to know that Beagle has found a way to tell another unicorn tale, one with its own elements of poetry and magic, in a setting that combines a pastoral charm and intrusive modernity. Claudio, despite appearing a bit of a curmudgeon at first, grows into someone readers will find sympathetic, and the rest of the cast is nicely observed and well drawn. A charming, beautifully written short novel—don’t miss it.

*   *   *

By China Miéville
Del Rey, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-345-54400-1

Here’s an alternate history with a World War II setting—except this one takes place in a world where the visions of the surrealist artists of the 1920s through the late forties have broken out of their paintings and into reality.

The story is broken into two alternating segments, one set in Marseilles in 1941, the other in Paris in 1950. In both segments, France is occupied by the Germans. Marseilles is recognizably set in our own world—a city where plots are hatched, though this early in the war, the occupation lies a bit lighter than in other areas.

But in the later segment, the Paris of 1950 is a war zone with groups of French resistance fighters taking on the Germans, while both sides dodge manifs: strange creatures that could only have come from a surrealist’s imagination. The focus is on a young Frenchman named Thibaut, the surviving member of a resistance group called Main à plume.

We meet Thibaut as he watches the interactions between the German invaders and the manifs. Miéville gives us a look back at the “S-blast,” the moment at which Paris was transformed from a normal city (despite being occupied by the Nazis) to one where the city becomes “populated by its own unpretty imaginings.” A few quick scenes are enough to establish the situation—a self-driving motorcycle scattering German troops, a tendril of vegetation snatching Messerschmitts out of the sky.

Thibaut knows the surrealist school from growing up idolizing its painters, seeing it as a liberation movement. Now, with enemy soldiers occupying Paris, “liberation” means something far more concrete to him—even though he is fighting a one-man battle for his city. And then, a woman joins him—a photographer who says she has come to record what has become of Paris. Her name is Sam, and she appears to know almost as much as Thibaut about the surrealists.

The scene jumps to Marseille, where two men meet in a café. One, Vernon Fry, says he’s an American trying to find a way to travel farther into Europe. The other, Jack Parsons, has been living in the city long enough to make the acquaintance of several surrealists—he claims to be particular friends with Aleister Crowley—but, as we learn, he has a jury-rigged machine that can “unfold the world.” While the exact meaning of that is unclear, it’s not hard to understand that it’ll eventually have something to do with what’s going on in Paris.

Miéville juggles the two time streams for several chapters, with events in Thibaut’s Paris taking up most of the space. The crisis grows, as the German occupiers attempt to make some final push, and the surrealist manifs take on more energy in response. The situation doesn’t become any less strange with familiarity—the author manages to find unexpected plot twists to throw the reader’s expectations off the mark. That may make the novel uncomfortable for some readers; this is by no means a stock fantasy world, and the surrealists aren’t an easy group to use as the framework for a coherent plot. But Miéville makes it work, and readers who stick with the story will find it rewarding.

The book is illustrated with samples of the art Miéville refers to, and it includes notes linking the various manifs in the plot to the original artwork that inspired them. If you’ve always been intrigued by the surrealist movement, this could serve as a quick and enjoyable route to learning more about the artists and their work. Or plunge right in and read it for the sophisticated and complex fantasy it is.

*   *   *

By Robert Buettner
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8190-7

Here’s a near-future mystery that walks the line between SF and technothriller, set in San Francisco. It begins with a murder on the Golden Gate Bridge. Manuel Colibri, the world’s richest man, falls victim to a car bomb that literally blows him off the bridge.

Two people investigate: tech journalist Kate Boyle and Iraq war veteran Ben Shepard. Ben more or less stumbles into the investigation—he’s a go-fer for a newly appointed Secretary of National Security, who’s been sent to look into the possible terrorist implications of the murder. When the suspect dies in the explosion of his bomb lab, the secretary decides to go back to Washington to stoke his political ambitions, and Ben stays behind to mop up the details—in particular, to locate Colibri’s body.

Meanwhile, Kate has returned to San Francisco to look in on her widowed father, a tough lawyer who’s letting his grief—and the Scotch—get the upper hand. One of his old clients has asked him to look into Colibri’s murder, so Kate decides to put her journalistic skills to work and help him find out what’s what.

As it turns out, there’s suspicion that Colibri’s research into life extension made him a target. If, as he suggested, human life could be extended indefinitely, what becomes of the religions that promise their adherents life after death? Rumor has it that Colibri made the Catholic Church the sole owner of his company in the event of his death—could the Church have decided to kill two birds with one stone?

At first, Kate and Ben follow leads separately—Ben on a boat on San Francisco Bay, trying to find whatever’s left of Colibri’s car, and possibly his remains, so the case can be put to bed; Kate interviewing the victim’s acquaintances. When they finally connect up, neither makes a good first impression, but they do make a good team. Eventually, they stumble on a clue—a note from Colibri that leads them on a tour of some of San Francisco’s museums and libraries—at each of which is an artifact donated by the missing billionaire. After the protagonists find them, Buettner provides a chapter detailing the origins of each—and the astute reader will begin to recognize a deeper reality behind the surface of Colibri’s disappearance. And yes, there is a real SF element, and it is crucial to the story as a whole.

The Golden Gate is an entertaining SF mystery/thriller with a fair quota of twists and red herrings, and a good sense of pace. Add to that a nicely realized San Francisco setting—and it may give readers a number of ideas about less-familiar places to visit on their next trip to the city.

*   *   *

My Misadventures in Time Travel
By Daniel M. Kimmel
Fantastic Books, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-0052-3

Kimmel offers an engaging, often humorous time-travel story that manages to hit most of the expected themes of the genre while retaining a fresh feeling.

Set in Rochester, New York, the story begins with a young newspaper reporter, Max Miller, assigned to interview Professor Wilford Price, who claims to have invented a time machine. The journalist is looking to get in and out of the interview with as little wasted time as possible. After all, the story can’t be true—and he can only end up looking foolish if he takes it too seriously.

But Max isn’t going to get off the hook that easily. The professor drags him into the story with the first of a series of anecdotes—this one about walking into his office at the university and finding himself already there. The title of the chapter—“Pair of Docs”—should give the reader ample notice of the jesting tone much of the narrative take as Kimmel plays with the twists of probability and causality involved in time travel.

The story alternates between the reporter—who’s becoming less and less sure he knows how to write his article but more and more convinced that the professor’s the real thing—and Price’s adventures as he visits different eras in hopes of finding out where the original time machine came from. As it turns out, he didn’t actually invent it; his future self gave it to him, and it appears to be based on theoretical papers from an earlier professor whom he then decides to visit. That leads him to . . . well, we don’t want to give away the whole story, do we? Suffice it to say that the complications and temporal paradoxes pile up steadily, always with a humorous edge to them. Oh yes, there’s a love story in the mix, as well—with its own time travel twists and turns.

In addition to the plot, Kimmel mixes in some interesting speculations on the ethics of time travel—for example, the whole question of altering history by deliberately changing some action in the past, or the problem of meeting an earlier (or later) version of yourself during your travels. His solutions are original, at least to this reader, and reasonably consistent within the world of the story.

This one’s a fun read, with fresh takes on classic SF material and interesting reminders of some of the changes that have taken place in a comparatively short period of history,

You may not find Time on My Hands at a local bookseller, but you can order it directly from the publisher at or from most online booksellers. You won’t regret it.

*   *   *

By James P. Blaylock
Subterranean, $40 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-59606-782-0

Fans of steampunk will welcome this collection from one of the inventors of the subgenre, featuring the intrepid Victorian adventurer St. Ives.

Told by the adventurer’s sidekick Jack Owlesby, the stories generally begin in the Half Toad, a London inn run by an ex-sailor who with his wife offers surprisingly good food and drink. Thence they launch out into adventures, several of which involve Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, a mad scientist of sweeping ambition.

Blaylock conjures up a suitably entertaining set of inventions for Narbondo to deploy against the protagonists: an electric submarine and a ray that induces madness are just the first two. To combat Narbondo’s schemes, St. Ives and his companions travel from the seamy pubs along the London docks to the quicksands of Morecambe Bay and ride the railroad to the North of England and then back to a hidden cave near Dover, just in time to thwart Narbondo’s scheme to Rule the World.

But that’s not all—in one adventure, St. Ives and his companions take on a strange cult that sweeps through London, sending its devotees down the Thames in barrels. Later, St. Ives and friends set off on a voyage to a Caribbean island to find a giant pearl, pursued by pirates in search of the same treasure, and come up against strange alien gods who jealously protect it. Still another adventure takes the intrepid explorer to a world above the clouds, in which he meets another scientist of dubious sanity and gets a look into his own future.

Most of the stories are told from Jack’s point of view, and he is an amiable “Watson,” loyal and willing to pitch in as required, whether in a fight or taking the controls of an unfamiliar machine—and just a step behind St. Ives when it comes to figuring things out. The other characters are stock Victorian types as well. And Blaylock has a nice touch with the period style, not always an easy thing for a modern writer to pull off without coming across as either stodgy or presumptuous.

All through, Blaylock drops in echoes of various Victorian adventures, popular movies, and other bits of lore that will provide additional entertainment to readers who recognize the originals. All in all, this is great fun for steampunk fans, as well as those who just enjoy a well-told adventure yarn.

One of the stories published here, “The Ring of Stones,” appeared previously as a stand-alone from Subterranean. But there’s enough more in this volume—especially the stylish (and plentiful) black and white illustrations by J.K. Potter—to make the book well worth the deluxe hardcover price.

*   *   *

Conversations with Robert Silverberg
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Fairwood Press, $16.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-933846-63-7

Here’s a collection of interviews with one of the giants of the field, looking back over his life and career.

Zinos-Amaro has spent some twenty years studying Silverberg’s work, getting to know him, and eventually even collaborating on a novel with him. This has created a level of trust between the two that resulted in the remarkably frank and detailed conversations that make up this book.

The book is divided into chapters, each on a specific subject—some biographical, some literary, all infused with Silverberg’s urbane observations on whatever topic comes to the fore. Zinos-Amaro does a good job feeding him questions, raising issues that show his familiarity with his subject’s interests and accomplishments. As a result, the book offers a fascinating insight into the course of science fiction, its readers and creators, and the world at large,

In the first chapter, “The Vividness of Landscape,” Silverberg talks about his travels, which have covered much of the world. We hear about museums all over the earth, the different artifacts Silverberg has acquired—and we get a good sense of Silverberg’s conversational voice, which is one of the prime attractions here. The next chapter, “Aesthetics,” moves into questions of artistic taste—covering a range from landscape to music to painting to the movies—and, of course, the art of storytelling. Further chapters touch on the centrality of wonder in science fiction, the importance of libraries, and Silverberg’s own writing career. He began publishing stories in the early 1950s. A series of questions submitted by Zinos-Alvaro’s friends on Facebook covers several bases untouched elsewhere in the volume, and the concluding chapter gives Silverberg’s reflections on reaching the age of eighty-five.

Along the way, there are comments on Silverberg’s fellow writers, his editors, and on a good number of his novels or stories. It’s an absolute treat for anyone who’s enjoyed Silverberg’s fiction, or his columns in this magazine. An introduction by Gardner Dozois and a reminiscence of traveling with Silverberg by his wife, Karen Haber, are nice additions to the volume.

By chance, I happened recently to pick up Silverberg’s 1987 anthology, Worlds of Wonder, which includes an autobiographical sketch in addition to his observations on the art of writing SF. It adds an interesting perspective to some of the autobiographical comments in Traveler of Worlds. It’s worth finding a copy—especially in conjunction with Alvaro’s portrait of Silverberg—one of the most illustrious writers of his generation.

*   *   *

The UFO Library of Jack Womack
By Jack Womack
Anthology Editions, $40.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-944860-00-4

Here’s a look back at the boom years of the UFO craze as reflected in the popular press of the time, as collected (and with a few ironic asides) by Womack. Womack chronicles the different manifestations of the cult with ample illustrations and quotes from the various books and magazine articles that have appeared over the decades since the first recorded sighting, by a commercial airline pilot in 1947. Other sightings followed, and soon it was all over the newspapers, not just in the U.S. but also worldwide.

Sensationalist editor Ray Palmer, whose Amazing Stories featured the infamous fact-and-fantasy-blurring “Shaver Mystery” stories in the 1940s, quickly sized up the saucer sightings as a hot new angle he could use to boost circulation. Predictably, the saucer craze picked up all sorts of dubious elements, many of which smelled strongly of hoaxery. That didn’t bother Palmer.

Anyone who’s dipped into the flying saucer literature knows just how bizarre it can get, and Womack has dug up some juicy specimens. SF readers with a sense of history will already be familiar with some of them. Along with Palmer, a few other names with SF connections show up in the account—Otto Binder, a minor star of the pulp era, probably best known for scripting “Captain Marvel” comics, was co-author of Mankind—Child of the Stars, which earned a cover blurb from none other than Erich Von Daniken. And most readers can probably think of a few spaceships from SF film or TV shows that adopted the general saucer shape.

But the woo-woo elements of the saucer craze very quickly eroded any interest most serious SF fans might have had in it, other than as a mass phenomenon that superficially—and very uncritically—incorporated such SF themes as alien visitations and FTL travel. The notion that saucer people had come to Earth to warn humanity of some dire future—the exact nature of the threat varied from one account to another—was stale for SF readers even by the early fifties, despite its appearance in a couple of now-classic films. In the hands of many of its proponents, the saucer material was blended with the kind of dime-store mysticism that is the stuff of cults.

Womack mostly lets the material speak for itself, in all its multitudinous contradictions. The coffee-table book is full of illustrations, including a number of vintage photos that were produced as evidence of the reality of saucers. There are passages from books describing the experiences of those who had been on trips aboard a saucer, or transcribing their conversations with the spacemen. All in all, they’re vivid snapshots of something quintessentially American—and while the saucer craze has faded from prominence, it can be counted on to emerge from the fringes every so often.

A bonus is an introduction by William Gibson, who has a flying saucer experience from his own family to contribute. This one isn’t for everybody, but as documentation of a notion that grabbed the popular mind and held onto it for a surprising length of time, this is a remarkable vein of material. 

Copyright © 2017 Peter Heck

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