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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo


Don’t Stop Believing

If the stories in Believing (NESFA Press, hardcover, $32.00, 470 pages, ISBN 978-1-61037-338-8) were to appear, one by one, in the year 2020, across the various top-notch magazines, Zenna Henderson would be hailed as one of the most exciting and inventive and clear-eyed writers of fantastika to debut in a long time, and she’d be appearing on all the awards ballots. Despite inevitable period details, these tales offer eternally relevant thrills, reflections, speculations, moral quandaries both hard-edged and softer-tinged, and above all superb characters. For once I find myself disagreeing with John Clute’s assessment of an author when he says, in Henderson’s entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, “It is true that her patent decency sometimes overly reduces tensions and contrasts, but though this wholesomeness can be vitiating, the humaneness almost always shines through.” He’s correct about the humaneness, but absolutely wrong about any of these tales being wishy-washy or timid or conventional or wan. Beneath a surface niceness, Henderson was hard as gravel, utterly cognizant of the universe’s cold equations.

This volume, another of NESFA Press’s generous milestone compilations that save classics from the dust heap of history (masterfully assembled by Patricia Morgan Lang), resurrects Henderson’s two collections, The Anything Box (1965) and Holding Wonder (1971). (Additionally, literary sleuthing has turned up five unreprinted stories and three poems.) Both of the original battered paperbacks already sit on my shelves, and were vastly enjoyed by my teenaged self. But details of the individual stories have faded away almost entirely with the decades, and so I was able to approach the reprints with no nostalgia or preconceptions.

Henderson’s most famous achievement was, of course, her saga of the People, alien castaways on Earth. These were previously assembled in the companion volume, Ingathering. Today we find Henderson working in pure fantasy, pure SF, slipstream-type interstitial modes, and even some plainly mimetic fiction. Across all these genres she is concerned with several themes: belonging and exclusion; fatedness and free will; age and youth.

With almost four dozen pieces here, we can only look at a few representative ones. But almost every story cranks up the readability gauge.

Henderson’s background and savvy as a grade-school teacher (mostly first-grade level) emerges instantly in “The Anything Box,” which brings us the highly empathetic portrait of a troubled child with the ability to conjure up compensatory visions. Henderson’s genius is in making the adult narrator complicit with the child. There is no distancing: ages and intellects jump all barriers. Many more such instances stand out in the collection. (I should mention that I’ve always thought of Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffty is Five” as his attempt to do a Henderson story.)

The second story, “Subcommittee,” instantly shows Henderson’s range, as it deals with aliens and warfare, rather than more domestic concerns. Third up, “Something Bright,” is the first illustration of Henderson’s treatment of humanity’s numinous longing for a more perfect world, the theme of transcendence or edenic return that the Panshins saw as essential to SF. During the Depression, a young girl reluctantly helps an old woman achieve her escape from exile and carnal burdens. Henderson’s first sale, “Come on, Wagon!” shows how her depiction of children started with a Kuttneresque foundation before evolving into her unique slant.

“Walking Aunt Daid” brings out Henderson’s poetic and sensual affinities with Bradbury, as we witness the transition of a mummified yet living woman into alluring youthfulness, and its effect on a young man. “The Grunder,” about a husband and wife at odds and the resolution of their woes thanks to a magic fish, might have been penned by Sturgeon, given the intensity and ferocity of the marital battles. “J-Line to Nowhere” is one of several stories examining civilization’s slide toward utter sterility and abandonment of nature. “The Taste of Aunt Sophronia” is almost Tiptree-like in its opening sequence, which finds a space plague loose on Earth, which condemns several women to a life of desperate stasis interleaved with pain. Pure Laird Barron horror is delivered in “Hush!,” where a figment of the imagination becomes an all-devouring killer.

The heretofore-obscured tales are all well deserving of new life. “Thrumthing and Out,” about a man who allows a “Spill” to intrude on the plastic-fantastic, highly policed world of the future could have been an outtake from Bunch’s Moderan. And “There was a Garden,” about the world after mankind’s extinction, shows Henderson pulling off a Dunsany fable.

Her prose in all of these stories has a quiet gravitas and well-machined, invitingly homespun surface not inconsistent with sharp metaphors and sensory acuity. And she could get nasty as well:

I lay awake, trying to rid myself of the vision of what a person looked like after an unprotected attack by the enemy. They have a nasty type of projectile that merely pricks the skin. But then the pricked place almost explodes into an orange-sized swelling that, when cut or punctured, which it must be immediately to ease the unendurable agony, sprays out hundreds of tiny creatures that scatter wildly, digging for hiding holes. And their tiny claws prick the skin. And then the pricked places—

Henderson’s life—devoted to her impassioned teaching of children and her literary productions—was apparently lived mostly alone. (She was, however, married briefly, and in fact “Henderson” was her husband’s surname.) But I suspect her inner and quotidian existence was richer than any of us can imagine. Her author photo on this book shows a face exhibiting self-composure, certainty, solidity, and a faint smile at the noble absurdity of humanity. Along with the hundreds of kids she taught, contemporary writers such as Mary Rickert, Kelly Link, and Susan Palwick are the children of Zenna Henderson.

*   *   *

Never Eat at a Joint
Called Gobblin’

Steampunk (at least as a publishing category) is rapidly approaching its thirty-fifth birthday (in 2022, based on K.W. Jeter’s 1987 coinage of the term), and it seems to have become a permanent duchy in the kingdom of fantastika. We are privileged to still have with us many of the creators who pioneered the mode even before Jeter’s codification of it, including the remarkable James Blaylock. Still working at the top of his game, he gifts us now with The Gobblin’ Society (Subterranean, hardcover, $40.00, 176 pages, ISBN 978-1596069480). It’s a continuation of his series involving the scientific adventurer Langdon St. Ives, who made his first appearance in 1986’s Homunculus (and in “Lord Kelvin’s Machine,” Asimov’s, Mid-December 1985).

I have always maintained that there is a kind of steampunk that is fantasy-oriented, and a kind of steampunk that is science fiction-oriented. But here Blaylock starts channeling his inner Mario Bava and gives us giallo- or horror-oriented steampunk. Surprisingly gruesome, this St. Ives excursion features a Dr. Phibes vibe.

The book launches with the arrival of an innocent seeker at the creepy manse maintained by a gourmands’s club dubbed The Gobblin’ Society. He is soon trussed and executed, for mysterious reasons. The reader—but not the characters—learns quickly that this horror house shares a village with a mansion named Seaward, which Mrs. Alice St. Ives has just inherited, from her uncle Godfrey Walton. Enjoying pleasant memories of the place, the St. Ives family—including adopted son Finn Conrad, as well as Tubby and Gilbert Frobisher—set out for the coast to take possession of the place. But it’s unlawfully tenanted by the eccentric Baron Truelove, who had been granted access to the place by Alice’s cousin, Collier Bonnet. Before you can say “quail in malmsey,” the St. Ives family is involved with kidnappings, mesmerism, smuggling, and the ultimate horror of cannibalism. All the action culminates in a pitched battle on the sands around Seaward, followed by an assault on the charnel house of The Gobblin’ Society.

Blaylock show great zest in conjuring up his villains, who all exhibit a blithe amorality that is almost worse than pure evil. The familiar St. Ives family figures from past adventures shine as well. But his best creation is certainly Collier Bonnet, a fellow torn between greed and self-sacrifice, self-service and nobility.

Curiously enough, Langdon St. Ives is actually offstage for three-quarters of the book, taking a very small role. When he does enter into the center of events, he performs splendidly. But most of the heroics of the novel fall to Finn Conrad, almost as if Blaylock were grooming him to step into St. Ives’s shoes as the older man takes up more of a mentor’s role. Likewise, Alice actually does more sleuthing than her husband.

Blaylock inhabits the Victorian era like a real time-traveler. The diction and syntax of his players is authentically changed from modern speech, as are aspects of their worldviews and philosophies. Physical appurtenances evoke the era: “a whimsical coatrack with gargoyle hooks, and two footstools with tapestry tops and bun feet.” Note the proliferation of wholesome food in the book, to stand in contrast to the unholy feasts of the Society.

Offering an enticing stew of homely virtues, wanton depravity, suspense, drollery, and surprising reversals, Blaylock’s latest is meal, dessert, and digestif.

*   *   *

Burned on the Bayou

In the October 2001 issue of the much-missed Realms of Fantasy magazine, I reviewed a first novel titled Artemis Fowl, by one Eoin Colfer. I don’t have that issue—or my old Microsoft Word file—handy, so I can’t repeat exactly what I said. But I recall liking the book and giving it a general nod of approbation, making a vow to track the author’s subsequent output.

Well, guess what? Twenty years have gone by without me picking up another book by Colfer, although I’ve certainly charted his successful career out of the corner of one eye. This is just the typical way in which a working reviewer finds his best-laid plans undone by journalistic exigencies. However, no streak goes unbroken, so I’ve managed now to read Colfer’s new, non-YA book, Highfire (Harper Perennial, hardcover, $19.99, 384 pages, ISBN 978-0062938558), and I can report it to be a wonderful comedic fantasy with plenty of sass and surprise, brio and in-your-face cussing. If you’ve read and enjoyed Gork, the Teenage Dragon, you can now graduate from that literary high school and enter the real down-and-dirty world.

Our novel takes place in the tiny low-rent Louisiana swamp town of Petite Bateau. There lives fifteen-year-old Squib (a good-natured, scheming kid who has to skirt the law just to survive); his mother Elodie, a nurse; the corrupt constable Regence Hooke; and a host of other colorful humans. Also resident in town is an elderly cantakerous fellow named Waxman, who happens to be a supernatural mogwai. And Waxman’s best friend is named Vern, short for Wyvern, aka Lord Highfire, the world’s last remaining genuine fire-breathing dragon, ensconced in a shack deep in the untraveled swamp.

The plot arises organically and chaotically from the varied natures of all these players. Vern, mean and tough as he once was, wants mostly be left alone these days, in hiding, to get drunk and weep when listening to “Blue Bayou.” Squib wants to survive and earn a little money to help Elodie. And Hooke wants to get rich and obtain power (mainly by killing those above him, like mobster boss Ivory Conti) and have the thoroughly disgusted Elodie as his main squeeze. Soon Squib is running errands for Vern, whose existence Hooke surmises, then confirms. Eventually, after many smaller adventures, comes a dragon raid on Conti’s New Orleans HQ, followed by a battle to the death between the forces of Hooke and Vern’s new human posse in the midst of the swamp.

This book moves along at a rollicking, breathless pace. It’s full of zingy dialogue, laugh-out-loud pop-culture allusiveness, wild set pieces, and a devil-may-care sensibility. We gleefully discern no polite, respectable, noble elements in the soul of either Vern or the humans. Nonetheless, we still know who’s good and who’s evil. If you smooshed up the best bits of Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, Joe Lansdale, and Carl Hiassen, you’d approximate Colfer’s presentation and vibe.

Comedic fantasy has been a small but important subgenre since at least the era of F. Anstey and Jerome K. Jerome, extending through Thorne Smith, the Unknown magazine crowd, and down to Tom Holt and Christopher Moore. Colfer joins these predecessors with verve. Ultimately, the book’s tone and effects remind me somewhat of John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything. Call it The Runt, the Dragon & Anything Goes.

*   *   *

A Kick in the Quoin

At the end of Bone Silence (Orbit, trade paper, $16.99, 640 pages, ISBN 978-0316462754), the third and ostensibly culminating book in his Revenger series, Alistair Reynolds says, “I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me, remains to be seen.” If, indeed, this outing concludes their adventures, it is a suitably slam-bang, emotion-packed, satisfactory finale. And yet, there’s potential territory beyond this event horizon for more adventures. I urge the sisters to contact their creator for more page time.

To summarize very briefly the first two books, Revenger and Shadow Captain (those who are interested can easily find my more extensive coverage of these predecessors for Locus at their website): in a realm of space dubbed the Convergence are a host of artificial worlds populated mainly by humans, but also a few alien races. On one world we find two genteel, well-off sisters, Fura and Adrana Ness. Kidnapped, enduring many harsh trials, they become pirates, joint captains of a deadly ship named the Revenger. With a motley colorful crew, they make a big strike when they discover a hoard of “quoins,” the quantum-mechanically alive coinage of the realm. But in tampering with the hoard, they unleash economic collapse across the Convergence, as the quoins mysteriously recalibrate their values.

That pretty much brings us to the opening of the current book. The Ness sisters are now notorious outlaws with a price on their heads. But they cannot simply flee forever or go into seclusion, because the Revenger needs supplies, and supplies demand bounty. A covert visit to the world of Mulgracen leads them to an alien called Zak the Clacker. He promises to reward the sisters if they bring him to a place called Trevenza Reach. On the way there, they capture a small ship called the Merry Mare, and enlist its crew in their cause. The sisters now separate, each to helm her own ship. But lying in between them and Trevenza is the deadly government-sanctioned killer, Incer Stallis (very much a Kylo Ren type). And even if they defeat him, enemies lurk on Trevenza. And ultimately the biggest challenge—and potentially the answer to all their questing—is a huge artifact on the rim of the Convergence, which just might explain quoins and the cyclic nature of Convergence civilization.

As in the previous two volumes, Reynolds has immense fun writing what might be called “steampunk space opera.” (See David Levine’s Arabella series for allied thrills.) All the hard SF solidity of his previous books is now filigreed with the great tropes of sea-pirate literature, from sword fights to mutiny. And his quasi-archaic but always limpid language joyfully reflects this:

The Ness sisters hugged each other, each pressing close to the other, defying the universe to show that this reunion was some fabulation of their desires; some cruel phantom of their mutual imaginations, a dream of better circumstances about to be shattered by the careless intrusion of day. By some miracle, though, the dream persisted. It was not about to be undone so readily, and with each moment that passed, the sisters permitted themselves the hardening belief that it was both real and irrevocable. In each case, there was a detail that their minds might have struggled to fabricate, if this were mere wish-fulfillment.

But of course he does not neglect plenty of purely stefnal frissons, such as ancient ruins of forerunner civilizations; bizarre infections that alter one’s very nature (Fura’s contamination with lightvine, and crewmember Strambli’s transformation into a “Ghostie”); and planets with engines at their core.

With plenty of spotlight time for very engaging secondary characters, and a willingness to shockingly and dramatically undo what we had come to assume were eternal verities, Reynolds provides us with a galactic Treasure Island’s worth of rollicking escapism.

*   *   *

Life in the Spooky Interstices

Each debut story collection is like the birth announcement of a new baby: full of joy, promise, and pride. When the collection is really outstanding, it’s as if the infant suddenly transformed from mere potential into a fully realized adult right before your eyes. Kay Chronister’s Thin Places (Undertow Publications, trade paper, $14.99, 204 pages, ISBN 978-1-988964-18-8) signals such a miracle.

Before tossing all caution aside and inhabiting Chronister’s weird, haunting and dire visions (three of which are unique to this collection), let us compliment publisher Michael Kelly, whose discerning eye and good literary sensibilities continue to make Undertow a standout publisher, and let us also give praise to cover artist Stephen Mackey, who conjures terror out of subtle elegance.

“Your Clothes a Sepulchre, Your Body a Grave” is the Poe-esque tale of two doomed lovers, told by the male of the duo. It’s a bruised prose poem of Husymans ambiance, which circles around the peculiar physical inheritance of the woman in a tightening spiral of madness. Maybe Christopher Priest could include the village of Sklep (“The Women Who Sing for Sklep”) in his Dream Archipelago. A composer from outside the confines of the strange town takes up residence there and gradually learns the secrets of the wordless music that is the town’s heritage. His assistant pays a certain steep price. “After green week, Triglav returned. He came out of the river with a wife, and a lush, dark beard on his face.” I was reminded of a Le Guin fable when reading “The Warriors, the Mothers, the Drowned,” which chronicles the death-realm journey of Ana and her sick child, under the guidance of a coyote spirit guide. “Loping across the land of the dead with Sylvie on her back, past the aspen trees, the crow’s skins, the golems, Ana counts up the dead and includes herself among them.”

Married at age twelve to the silent Mr. Rishner, the orphan girl who narrates “Too Lonely, Too Wild” finds herself part of a strange sisterhood of abnormal wives. The Flamingo Motel in “Roiling and Without Form” exists precariously in a post-collapse interzone, and is run by a young woman named Molly. The arrival of two strange guests threatens what little stability she enjoys. In “Life Cycles,” a reluctant son must pay for the obligations incurred by his father by going to live with “the Glaire woman” and helping her make a baby. But not in any carnal way you can suspect.

“The Fifth Gable” also concerns the desire to secure a child, as young Marigold Hest, seeking a baby of her own, approaches the four witches who live in the four-gabled house. Young Bradbury might have turned out this one. An old murder hangs over the town of Pryor in “White Throat Holler,” and the young woman named Esther Grace is tasked with laying the ghosts to rest. That is, if the “purewater man” doesn’t interfere. Family duties of all queer sorts are a major concern in this volume, and “Russula’s Wake” finds poor Jane with her hands full with Rosemarie, Devon, and Ainsley. “The mammalian features melted from their faces and in their hideous natural forms they repented.”

Reading like a lost segment of Geoff Ryman’s novel Air, “The Lights We Carried Home” is set in Southeast Asia and charts the deadly intersection of modern tech and local traditions. And finally, in the title story we get almost a Zenna Henderson scenario twisted through a lateral dimension, as young schoolteacher Miss Augusta goes to bat for Lillianne Eisner and her family who, alas, must perish for the good of the village.

Her language crisp and fresh and disturbing, blending the matter-of-fact surrealism of Leena Krohn with the cold deliriums of Shirley Jackson, Kay Chronister is an argonaut wandering through lands few of us could ever imagine, living in all those houses on the borderlands, who returns to tell of her voyages.

*   *   *

Android Weltschmerz in the
Years of Plague

Katie M. Flynn’s excellent, emotionally plangent debut novel The Companions (Scout Press, hardcover, $27.00, 272 pages, ISBN 978-1982122157)—a kind of hopscotch mosaic told from several viewpoints—is part of a swelling mini-genre that involves depicting future conditions from the point of view of an artificial person of whatever stripe. Although such stories can be found way back in the field, perhaps this mini-boomlet began back in 2001 with Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (which of course was based on a 1969 Brian Aldiss tale). Of late we have seen standout examples with Martin Shoemaker’s Today I Am Carey; Ariel Winter’s Barren Cove; Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust; and Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime.

At some unspecified date in the near future, America (and presumably the planet) is under lockdown conditions due to an artificial plague spread deliberately by misanthropic scientists. This topical theme has earned the book some extra notice in these times of COVID-19, but it proves to be—well, not precisely window-dressing, but rather merely a slightly important and pivotal part of the early plot, not the essential novum. And, in fact, as the plot lengthens, the plague is banished from everyday life.

We open in the cloistered California apartment of a young girl named Dahlia who has a smallish robot/drone companion named Lilac. (Note that all the chapters feature immersion in one character’s unique POV—Lilac’s this time.) We soon learn that Lilac’s intelligence is derived from a human upload, under certain universal rules. Uploads must be taken only from the recently dead or dying; and these intelligences—which once housed, then become the “companions” of the title—have the status of mere property, owned by the Metis corporation.

As the narrative advances, we learn of Lilac’s human past, a traumatic biography that will contour the rest of the book. Finally, abused by Dahlia’s mother, Lilac makes her escape, a brave little toaster out in the cruel world. Her fate will be the central armature of the tale. But quickly we are introduced to other key figures: Jakob, a Hollywood star who died and was reinstantiated as a companion; Cam, a nursing-home attendant who becomes Lilac’s lover (once Lilac is reinstalled in a nice human body of artificial flesh); Gabe, a young abused street person; and Diana, a rogue cyber-expert who wishes to help and to understand the companions and their silicon complexities. Additionally, several other folks, all drawn with the same depth and insight and precision that glows from the major cast, pop up.

The story features several largish time jumps that add nice cognitive estrangement to the tale, forcing the reader to untangle new relationships and deduce what has happened to folks since last they were seen. Flynn’s future is well-lived in and totally believable, with societal as well as technological changes. The ethical and emotional tango between the humans and the companions—as well as human to human and companion to companion—assumes a Blade Runner vibe, especially with the appearance of a companion named Kit, whose vocation is courier-assassin.

Flynn’s language is nicely textured and evocative. Here’s how Jakob thinks of the androids:

I knew companions, with their funny alert posture, a slight bounce in the step, easily unfooted, and the eyes, not the look of them—that was a flawless design—but the way they looked out at the world, as if scanning, taking in data, restless and hungry.

Besides being fine SF, The Companions is also a California Novel, like Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. In fact, if Ken Kesey had been an android, he might have grooved to this poignant tale.

*   *   *

Jain Drain

Neal Asher is writing a scintillating, single-minded kind of space opera that is as far from, say, Star Wars as the mode can get. It’s a kind of hallucinatory, surreal, language-driven, violent and frenetic phantasmagoria that feels like being dropped blindfolded and naked into a street brawl in a foreign country. If you wish to look for ancestors dimly relational to his state-of-the-art novels, you’d have to hark back to A.E. van Vogt, Charles Harness, Stanislaw Lem, and T.J. Bass, as well as, a bit more coeval, Scott Westerfeld’s Evolution’s Darling. Among Asher’s peers, folks like Tom Toner and John C. Wright stand shoulder to shoulder with him in terms of recomplicated complexity and prevalence of brain bombs.

Asher’s primary sequence concerns the Polity, the galactic civilization that’s mainly human, as opposed to the Prador kingdom of crablike sentients, and his latest trilogy, which culminates in The Human (Night Shade, hardcover, $26.99, 480 pages, ISBN 978-1949102376), is subtitled “The Rise of the Jain.” The Jain are a supposedly extinct forerunner race who have left a vast collection of dangerous artifacts inside an “accretion disc,” a nascent solar system far from the usual trade routes and outposts of civilization. The trilogy concerns the attempts by various players to defuse, obtain, manipulate, thwart, destroy, subvert, or otherwise employ these artifacts. So focused are all the characters on this cosmic, consequential quest that all other concerns—economic, cultural, artistic, recreational, familial, interpersonal (save for a small but touching love story)—go by the board, both in the actual lives of the characters and in Asher’s narrative choices. We should also note that all these figures are basically godlike posthumans, Zelaznyesque in manner. You will not get Delany-style slices of everyday domestic life here. The Polity is a kind of posthuman, post-scarcity, almost post-singularity wonderland, and these folks have a way of dying or almost dying, then bouncing back like superheroes.

In book one, The Soldier, things start out at the edge of the status quo ante, then quickly fall off the cliff. A woman named Orlandine—part human, part AI, part Jain tech—is busy guarding the accretion disc with her myriad super weapons. A being named the Client—last of her kind—is roaming around the disc and the edges of Prador space trying to find out what role the Jain played in the ancient extermination of her species. A ship hosting two Spatterjay humans, Cog and Trike, indestructible mutated giants, roams the galaxy in search of Ruth, Trike’s woman, who has been stolen by a Golem named Angel. The Polity’s rulers, that conglomeration of AIs known as Earth Central, is watching all from afar. And on the Cyberat planet a fellow named Zackander is experimenting with a bit of Jain tech that gets loose and become an unstoppable warrior (hence this book’s title) who seems intent on freeing his companions in the accretion disc. (A dozen other beings take significant roles as well.)

Following the defeat of the Jain Soldier—by a projectile black hole—as we see in The Warship, everything is destabilized. All the subplots advance in bold steps. Trike is reunited with Ruth, but forced by his own transfigurations to leave her. Orlandine is killed and resurrected to fight again. Angel gets his violent comeuppance. And changes in the accretion disc produce a new manifestation—a dreadnought a thousand miles long—that appears to feature the reemergence of living Jains.

Asher’s storytelling methodology is to bop around among different points of view in bite-sized segments. This ensures many suspenseful interruptions, and also a constantly shifting access to different values and motives that reveal events from all possible angles. Additionally, he uses a decompressed time frame in which events move at almost realtime. You will never be bored with this template.

If possible, the pitch and pace ramps up incredibly in the final book. It’s basically non-stop action in every chapter, as the Polity crew tries to stop the incredible onslaught from the Jain, centered on Orlandine’s home base of Jaskor. But Asher does not neglect the fulfillment of several character arcs. We get to witness Orlandine’s abandonment of her human components and transfiguration into a planet-sized creature. We watch as Ruth, abandoned by Trike, forms a new relationship with the soldier Gemmell. The Client finally reaches her goal. Earth Central and King Oberon of the Pradors recalibrate their love-hate relationship. And the buddy-film antics of Trike and Cog attain a surprising emotional depth, as they both undergo various noble excruciations.

But what carries every moment of the tale is Asher’s relentlessly poetic, half-delirious, half-analytical stefnal prose.

Orlandine fell. Superconducting fibres laced through the Jain tendrils, tentacles and vines of her human-shaped avatar, shunting heat back through her umbilicus. Micro- and nano-thermal convertors up there turned it into electricity and light, spreading that through further conductors or nanotubes. She filled with energy, overflowed with it. Mechanisms packed throughout increased activity while expanding their parameters to take the load. The device at the lip of the volcano . . . sent out burrowing tentacles whose faces blossomed shearfield generators, molecular drills and saws, as well as cutting and ablation lasers. . . . Her avatar lost its human shape and expanded, drawing in molten materials to process in microscopic engines with lives only seconds long. . . . Tendrils of collimated sapphire extended from these.

What Asher is doing is carrying out the linguistic-sensory program established in the very first modern space opera, The Skylark of Space:

Though it was impossible for the eye to follow the flight of the space-car, the mechanical sighting devices of the Mardonalian vessels kept her in as perfect focus as though she were stationary, and the great generators continued to hurl into her the full power of their death-dealing waves. The enemy guns were still spitting forth their streams of high-explosive shells, but unlike the waves, the shells moved so slowly compared to their target that only a few found their mark, and many of the vessels fell to the ground, riddled by the shells of their sister-ships. With anxious eyes Seaton watched the hull of his animated cannon-ball change in color. From dull red it became cherry, and as the cherry red gave place to bright red heat, Seaton threw even more power into the bar . . .

The shade of Doc Smith is enjoying all this, and you should be too!

Copyright © 2020 Paul Di Filippo

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