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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo

Making the Best of What’s Still Around

When you consult Robert Silverberg’s bibliography at ISFDB, after the immense fiction listings you will see several pages devoted to all his editing work, on both original anthologies and reprint collections. The total is astonishing and would constitute an entire career for some other, less-prolific person. Yet because of his dominant profile as a creative fantasist, no one ever characterizes him, as they should, as “Bob Silverberg, Master Anthologist.” That’s a decided oversight.

Well, since Messr. Silverberg has, to our sadness, publically retired from fiction writing, perhaps his subsequent productions as editor will assume greater prominence. Surely his newest venture along those lines demands applause and attention. This Way to the End Times (Three Rooms Press, trade paper, $19.95, 448 pages, ISBN 978-1-941110-47-8) is an overstuffed tour of various doomsday scenarios, proving that version of Murphy’s Law that observes that there are more ways to screw something up than there are to make something right.

We start with a magisterial introduction that charts the prominence of this theme throughout not just genre history, but human history as a whole. Individual introductions for each story will extend these observations, while also profiling the contributors. An extension of this overview is achieved by Silverberg’s chronological arrangement of his selections (the final entry being a deliberate exception to this sequence), thus illustrating the development of the theme over the decades.

We start with three little-reprinted pre-Gernsback tales that are the equal of any which follow, by Jules Verne, James Elroy Flecker, and Frank Lillie Pollock. Here we see disasters that are either cosmic, or failures of the human race’s elan vital (Flecker’s “The Last Generation,” where mankind deliberately ceases reproducing). It was not yet obvious to writers that humanity could have an impact through its own technologies sufficient to end civilization.

As we move into the Gernsback and Campbell eras, with dramatic stories by G. Peyton Wertenbaker, Philip Latham, and Fritz Leiber, we also see a continuation of this trope of doom from outside. The sun goes nova (Latham) or the Earth gets knocked out of orbit (Leiber). Our race remains generally nonculpable in the destruction.

As we enter the sixties, with two stories by Brian Aldiss, there is a slight transitioning. The robot dominance of “Who Can Replace a Man?” must be attributed, offstage, to human fallibility, a trait that is however turned around at the end into human superiority. But Aldiss’s second offering, “Heresies of the Huge God” reverts to a cosmic origin for our doom, however absurd, in the arrival of a giant alien. It’s really only in two selections by Silverberg himself that the extinction events amount to suicide, accidental or otherwise. “In the final centuries of their era the people of Earth succeeded in paving the surface of their planet almost entirely with a skin of concrete and metal.” (From “The Wind and the Rain.”) This attitude begins to inhabit the “Anthropocene” scenarios we see nowadays in such volumes as Jonathan Strahan’s Drowned Worlds. Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution” concurs.

But however much of an innovation and realization this prospect of self-immolation constituted—think also from this period about Vonnegut’s Ice-9—the allure of imposed dooms continued, as exhibited in selections from Connie Willis, Dale Bailey, Megan Arkenberg, et al. But in the penultimate tale, unique to this volume, “Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person,” Alvaro Zinos-Amaro chronicles a chrono-spasm that we probably brought on ourselves.

I would have liked to see a few other human-engendered dooms, such as in Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” or Richard Calder’s “Mosquito.” But barring that, this anthology certainly delivers the end times in classic form.

The final item on the ToC is a brief excerpt from Stapledon that certainly ends this collection with the proper elegaic tone.

“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.”

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Ten Thousand Comic-Cons From Home

The New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) maintains an online catalogue of “recursive science fiction,” defined very broadly as “science fiction stories that refer to science fiction.” I confess to having quite a few guilty entries there myself. The archivists of that page will almost certainly want to add Bob Proehl’s debut novel, the amusing A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, hardcover, $26.00, 368 pages, ISBN 978-0399562211) to their roll call, although the book ultimately has no overt supra-real elements. But it is indubitably a member of our family. Although centered mainly around the comics world rather than that of prose novelists, with ancillary material about fantastical media properties, the book nonetheless relates intimately to the familiar worlds of fandom and pro-dom that saw their birth in the early-twentieth-century SF scene. If you conceive of a cross between Galaxy Quest, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, you will have a fairly good approximation of the charms of this low-key book, which is more droll and affectionate than acidic and accusatory.

Proehl organizes his tale very cleverly into three sections, at the heart of each of which is a comics convention. The sections are “The Golden Age,” wherein the convention is low-key and takes place in Cleveland; “The Silver Age,” whose con is bigger and occurs in Chicago; and finally, of course, “The Modern Age,” featuring a mammoth convention in California. Through all of these venues moves the same cast of characters, yoked by their vocations into a traveling circus of passion and spite, despair and joy, victory and defeat.

The central players are Val Torrey and her nine-year-old son Alex, who is something of a sensitive prodigy. Some years back, Val was a star in a hit TV show called Anomaly, whose description makes it sound like a cross between The X-Files and The Man Who Fell to Earth, with a smattering of Indiana Jones. But with the dissolution of her marriage to co-star Andy Rhodes, she and Alex have been living in New York while Val pursues legit theater work. Now she has to deliver Alex to his dad out in California, and will supplement the road trip by making some con appearances to stage paid photo-shoots with fans and claim some easy money.

Val and Alex soon find their paths intertwined with those of Gail, a comics writer who has emerged from fandom to work on The Speck & Iota, a superhero book for one of the Big Two, National and Timely; and Brett and Fred, the artist-writer team that does Lady Stardust, an indy title for mature readers. Additionally, there are dozens of others, such as the woman who professionally cosplays as Ferret Lass; the Mad Brit; the Idea Man; and many colorful denizens of comicdom.

As you might guess from these names, this book is a roman à clef. No actually historical properties are cited by name. (With one small lapse: the ALF TV show is mentioned.) All the famous comics we know are given analogues. For instance:

*   *   *

But Timely has a birth moment, and parents. Everything grows out of Brewer and Loeb creating the Astounding Family. The Astounding Family discovers the totem that gives the Ferret his powers. The Ferret discovers the Visigoth trapped in ice during a battle with the Wailing Wendigo, and Doctor Right uses the Visigoth’s DNA to create the R-Squad. Red Emma’s family is killed in a fight between the R-Squad and the Perilous Pentad, which starts her war on crime. The Timely Universe grows and accretes. Each writer adds to it, but they don’t have to fix what’s come before. They work with the universe; it’s an organism.

*   *   *

This makes for some fun detective work for the knowledgeable reader, decoding all the references. Proehl is endlessly inventive with his surrogates, exaggerating the silliest aspects of the medium, and practically rebuilding the whole eighty-year history of comics before our eyes.

But although the game-playing aspect provides many kicks, the real strength of the tale is in its humanity, its depiction of the mother-son bond between Val and Alex, and its depiction of the rigors and rewards of the creative life in this strange industry. Proehl supplies compassion, ethics, and righteous judgments aplenty to render these dynamics real and to resolve them satisfactorily.

When, toward the end, the Idea Man echoes Grant Morrison’s thesis from Supergods, we can endorse it wholeheartedly.

*   *   *

“Look at all this. It’s fantastic. A hundred thousand worlds. What I love most, because I’m a hideous narcissist, is knowing many of these worlds are mine. You know what all of this is, don’t you? This is the immune system of the human soul. Superheroes, space rangers, time cowboys, they are the T cells of the spirit. They were always here to save us. We made them to save us.”

*   *   *

Three Sorceresses

I love short-story collections. I might almost prefer them to novels. At least on some days. And so when I receive three superb assemblages such as this lot from Carrie Vaughn, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Carol Emshwiller, it’s like half a dozen holidays rolled into one. And who do I have to thank? Two excellent small presses, Fairwood and Non-Stop, who carry the solo-author-collection banner high when the Big Five have defaulted.

I can’t do my usual story-by-story exegesis in this limited space, but will have to focus instead on just some representative standout entries.

Carrie Vaughn opens Amaryllis and Other Stories (Fairwood Press, trade paper, $17.99, 310 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1933846620) with a First Contact tale, “The Best We Can,” which quietly never leaves Earth, and yet which proves worthy of Greg Benford. Then, just to show off some range, she delivers four fine fantasies in various evocative venues, my favorite of which is “A Hunter’s Ode to His Bait,” which features a young virginal girl and a slayer of unicorns. Boasting a great title, “The Girl With the Pre-Raphaelite Hair” mixes hard SF (an AI inhabiting a human) with horror riffs to stunning effect. “A Riddle in Nine Syllables” has a knockout premise: a scientist exploring an alien planet is infected by a parasitic lifeform, then has to help engineer her own cure. But along the way, the parasite inside her begins to reveal itself as not altogether malign. I wish I had written “1977.” A disco dolly from the year in question is abducted into the future. Why? You’ll have to read and see! “The Art of Homecoming” tracks an interstellar explorer as she reluctantly takes a bucolic shore leave; the tale exhibits the flavors of prime Le Guin. Finally, “Bannerless” and the title story detail a resource-scarce post-apocalypse Earth where pregnancies are strictly doled out. The ethics of the enforcement are portrayed as complex and shifting.

Carrie Vaughn’s simple yet forceful prose allows her to slip on identities and to skip among worlds with admirable ease and abandon and precision, delivering thoughtful thrills galore.

Incredibly, there are almost thirty superb stories in Caroline M. Yoachim’s Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories (Fairwood Press, trade paper, $17.99, 298 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1933846552), her first book, which appears some nine years after she began selling stories with “Time to Say Goodnight” in 2007 (and which features two stories original to the volume). This plentitude is ascribable to the fact that many of the tales herein are flash fiction, a mode where Yoachim exhibits deft mastery. But she is no slouch at longer lengths, and in fact has a very distinct and charming and self-assured voice across all scales, a voice that reminds me of a hybrid twixt Kit Reed and China Miéville.

The opening salvo, “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion,” manages to use the famous rigid Kübler-Ross schematic in a very organic way to convey the emotional fallout from an infusion of deadly spores. The whipsaw transition from this tragedy to “Betty and the Squelchy Saurus,” which is like a more demented Monsters, Inc., is enlivening. Time travel for doomed lovers is the mind-boggling exercise in “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death.” Two posthuman adventures nicely complement each other in “The Philosophy of Ships” and “Temporary Friends,” the latter of which features a bunny named Mr. Flufferbottom.

Simply on the basis of her title—”The Little Mermaid of Innsmouth”—Yoachim gets a high-five. But the accompanying story, about the little scaly fish-girl who defied the destiny of her kind, merits further acclaim. If you could distill Ray Bradbury down to six pages, you’d end up with “The Circus Was Eaten, All Except the Clown.” Likewise, you get a whole episode of Futurama in the hilarious “Please Approve the Dissertation Research of Angtor.” And finally, the title story encapsulates a vast odyssey into the far future in a poetic and evocative way that would render Robert Reed jealous.

This volume makes me long to see Yoachim work at novel length. But if she “only” went on producing stories this good for the rest of her career, I’d have no complaint.

Vaughn is a true journeyman; Yoachim might still be dubbed an apprentice on the verge of transitioning to journeyman. But Carol Emshwiller is a master. With her first story appearing in 1955, she has logged six impressive decades of brilliant writing. Her short fiction was previously half-assembled in 2011’s The Collected Short Stories of Carol Emshwiller. Now comes the second half of her canon, over sixty tales, as The Collected Short Stories of Carol Emshwiller: Volume 2 (Non-Stop Press, trade paper, $30.00, 638 pages, ISBN 978-1933065380). Put these two books together, and you have an irreplaceable pillar in fantastika’s temple. And that’s not even counting her novels.

The book opens with a perceptive introduction by Barry Malzberg, arguing for Emshwiller to be designated a SFWA Grand Master. But beyond that brief, Malzberg intuitively identifies Emshwiller’s work as exemplifying and pioneering all the trends that have come to mark the current cutting edge of SF: the merger of “literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, feminism, horror [and] entropy . . .” Indeed, her tales have carved out their own unique space that other writers—Kelly Link, Rikki Ducornet, Leena Krohn, Gene Wolfe, Kathe Koja, Rhys Hughes—have come to inhabit. Malzberg also notes the almost universal preference Emshwiller has for first-person narration. I think this immediacy of voice adds to her impact.

The first story in the book hails from 1961, but I suspect this is a leftover item, discovered too late to go into the prior volume, because the next one hails from 1990 and is followed in sequence up to the closing entry from 2012. That was the year when Emshwiller turned ninety-one! I suspect her fiction-writing days are behind her now, making this set of books even more of a vital monument.

Emshwiller likes certain themes and venues. She’s fond of hidden Others that dwell in the interstices: “Overlooking,” “Coo People” and “I Live With You.” She likes to examine how power is employed by the militants and defused by the pacifists: “Boys,” “The Library” and “My General.” She likes physical quests for knowledge and meaning and spirituality: “Josephine” and “It Comes from Deep Inside.” Of course the roles of parent and child fascinate her: “Adapted” and “Quill.” But these are just a sampling of her concerns.

As for venues, I find Emshwiller to be a quintessential writer of the American landscape. Her deserts and woods are not European deserts and woods. They are archetypically American somehow, in the way Robert Frost’s poems were. They are the forests of New England, the deserts of the Southwest. Her suburbs, of course, are not the banlieues of Paris, but good old Long Island, where she and famed husband, Ed Emsh, painter of hundreds of SF book and magazine covers, once flourished. So to read Emshwiller is to witness a vast tapestry of Americana.

Emshwiller’s stories are atmospheric and impressionistic. She does not write thrillers or plot-heavy suspense. Nonetheless, the events of her tales, however meandering or even arbitrary they might seem, are always assembled into just the right patterns to convey her intended meanings.

A final thing to comment on is her sense of humor, darker and more acidic than that of any supposedly transgressive comedian. Her characters often come to sad endings—although sometimes redemption does await—but it’s a kind of doom where merely surviving to meet the fire is a manner of victory. But at other times, she can be as dementedly folksy as R.A. Lafferty. Consider the opening of “A Safe Place to Be.”

*   *   *

It started with a funny feeling in the bottoms of my feet. Something is going to happen. Perhaps an earthquake. That’s what it feels like. But perhaps terrorists on the way. Whatever it is, something’s coming.

Why did I (of all people), an old lady, get this warning while everybody else is going on as usual? Have I a special talent nobody else has?

But the cat feels it, too. He’s been shaking his paws as if they feel exactly like my feet do. He looks at me as if to say: Why don’t you do something? I tell him, “I will.”

*   *   *

Carol Emshwiller’s quietly revolutionary fiction deserves inclusion on curricula everywhere, in milestone histories of the field, and on your own shelves.

*   *   *

I Feel Your Pain

You might recall The Circle by Dave Eggers from 2013. This grim excoriation of all things internet—the corporate culture of Google, et al; the constant state of ultra-wired alertness they encourage—hit quite a few worthy targets with a major punch. (Of course, like most fiction, it had no visible impact in the real world, since all the trends it derided have continued at full bore since then.) After The Circle came Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities, which convincingly laid further degradations at the doorstep of social media, via a potent dramatization of new technologies and paradigms. I failed to see any decrease in Snapchat’s enrollment figures in the wake of Wilson’s bold affront. Now it’s time for Connie Willis to step into the battle with Crosstalk (Del Rey, hardcover, $28.00, 512 pages, ISBN 978-0345540676). We will see if her jolly humor with its concealed razor’s edge has any more effect than the efforts of her predecessors did. But of course, real-world impact aside, we can always count on Willis for a rollicking story well told. And, in fact, as it eventuates, the jabs against Silicon Valley are important yet peripheral, not even Willis’s main focus.

Our heroine in this farcical romp is one Briddey Flannigan, a loyal employee of big cellphone maker Commspan. (Commspan is so powerful that Apple spies on it!) Life is good for Briddey, especially since she is primed to wed Trent Worth, one of Commspan’s top honchos. Sure, Briddey has a host of neurotic relatives to contend with, as well as jealous coworkers. And then there’s that little bit of surgery that Trent insists on. He wants Briddey and himself to have EED neural implants, the trendiest accessory to promote interpersonal empathy. Briddey is a tad worried about the operation, but when your powerful boyfriend has so much staked on it . . . Thank goodness that Briddey can confide in raffish “mad scientist” C. B. Schwartz, down in the Commspan basement. But alas, C.B. is against the operation, an opinion that does nothing to settle Briddey’s mind as she lies in the operating room and feels the anesthesia taking effect.

Waking up, Briddey discovers that all her worries were justified. Instead of feeling mental “warm fuzzies” with Trent, she has had her mind opened up to a welter of extrasensory inputs (the exact nature of which I shall not reveal). Desperate for help, she finds it in the volunteered experience of C.B. Now, together, they begin a frantic and ofttimes comical escapade with several goals: save Briddey’s mind from insanity, chart her new powers, stave off her impatient suitor, stop Commspan from monetizing her new powers—and maybe even help her niece Maeve with homework and her own anxieties. Over the course of just a few ultra-stuffed days of narrative, Briddey and C.B. will find themselves in more awkward and even dangerous situations than the cast of David Russell’s Flirting with Disaster or Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. I make cinematic comparisons, since Willis’s book resembles such screwball comedies.

In science fictional terms, Crosstalk is most closely related to those classic psionic novels of the 1950s. (And why is this rich mode not utilized more nowadays? We can’t let George Lucas monopolize the Force for mediocre purposes.) I’m thinking of James Blish’s Jack of Eagles and Frank Robinson’s The Power. Newbie acquires psi abilities, finds out there is a secret cabal of fellow supermen, then has troubles fitting in, or reforms everything. Dan Morgan, a name almost totally forgotten today, managed to carry this trope forward into the Sixties with his series The Sixth Perception. In addition, I got a little pleasant whiff of The Witches of Karres in the engaging figure of the prodigal Maeve.

Willis is an old hand at screwball comedy and exhibits snappy dialogue (oral and mental) here, as well as fine staging and inventiveness of incidents. She also creates a great secret history for her psionics. My only small complaint was that I found Briddey just a little too angsty and cautious and fearful. I would have liked to see her reveling a little more in her new powers rather than fearing them. But perhaps Briddey’s response to a welter of mental intruders is ultimately more realistic than any bravado.

*   *   *

My Girlfriend Is a S’Hudonni

I don’t believe non-writers know the difficulty of coming up with a great title that does not sound stale; that conveys the essence of a story; that captures a buyer’s attention; and that has weight and elegance and poetry. Science fiction, if we date the genre from 1926, is ninety years old and has seen a hell of a lot of titles come and go. To conjure up a unique one these days that meets all the criteria outlined above is a hard task.

According to ISFDB, the title to Rick Wilber’s sophomore novel, Alien Morning (Tor Books, hardcover, $25.99, 304 pages, ISBN 978-0765332905), has never once been used before. And yet look how simple and archetypical it is, how evocative, how unstrained and natural-sounding, how science fictional, and, when you read the book, how perfectly fitted to the subject matter. Coining that title might seem like a small thing, at least compared to writing the fine book that accompanies it, but it speaks volumes about Wilber’s talents and nature: the man possesses an originality and a quiet simplicity and a piercing gaze to the core of things.

Readers of this magazine have been encountering the S’Hudonni aliens for some time now, since at least 1988, and it’s good to finally get their First Contact story at novel length. The fact that the tale is narrated by such a charming, complex, believable character as “freelance sweeper” Peter Holman adds to the pleasures. Holman’s job is that of a living VR feed, a sweeper. His hardware—exterior at first, then implanted—sends many of his sensory perceptions to viewers around the globe. (Peter’s AI “helpmate,” myBob, is another facet to his cyborg existence, and becomes a character in “his” own right.) This startling novum was exploited at least as far back as 1973, in D.G. Compton’s The Unsleeping Eye. But Wilber freshens it up nicely and adds lots of new and up-to-the-minute wrinkles. In fact, his whole near-future setting comes off as an organic and logical construction. Peter is shuffling along at a low level of success—until the newly arrived aliens tap him as their chief interface. What happens from there out is an odyssey of danger, sex, diplomacy, warfare, and self-discovery. The book ends with Peter poised for extraplanetary adventures in the next installment of this planned trilogy.

Besides all the solid stefnal riffs, this novel is a deep examination of family dynamics. Peter’s younger brother Tom has always been partly a friend, partly a rival, and events now precipitate a transition to pure rivalry, even hatred. (This relationship is cleverly mirrored by the contention between two S’Hudonni brothers, Twoclicks and Whistle.) Add in a damaged sister, Kait, as another locus of feelings, and the oscillating human relationships offer nearly as much suspense and wonder as Peter’s relations with the S’Hudonni, including the remarkable being known as Heather, his alien inamorata.

The ultimate effect of the book is like a cross between Michael Bishop’s A Little Knowledge and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Also, thanks to the Florida setting, I could not help but flash on one of Florida’s greatest contributions to literature, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Although a journalist, Peter almost fits the label McGee applied to himself: “salvage consultant.” He’s out to salvage his own life from the ruins of his past career as a pro athlete and his past mistakes with family, and he’s also out to salvage some remnant stature for humanity in the wake of the invasion. We’ll see how well he succeeds in the thrilling installments ahead. 

Copyright © 2017 Paul Di Filippo

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